The campaign to lift the charter school cap in Massachusetts goes off the tracks…
Around the 20 minute mark of Arne Duncan’s talk, I began to choke. I’d made it through Duncan’s endorsement of Question Two, the ballot initiative to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, and the occasion for last week’s *Education Party* thrown by Democrats for Education Reform. It was when Duncan started to talk about the need for school reformers to genuinely engage parents and families—*I’m not talking about astro-turf*—that the dryly bitter chuckling sound I’d been making escalated into something more profound. You see, that very morning, the Boston Globe had run an expose on the *family* at the very center of Question 2: a husband/wife team of GOP operatives who have orchestrated seemingly every aspect of the campaign.
There are other families involved, of course. Like Republican philanthropists Seth Klarman and Joanna Jacobson, whose largesse got the multi-pronged effort to lift the charter cap rolling, and who are referred to in the trove of internal emails the Globe made public as Klarman and JJ. And there is Families for Excellent Schools, whose CEO, Jeremiah Kittredge, is CC’d on all of the emails, along with a small army of lobbyists, PR hacks and the heads of a handful of Boston charter schools. An exemplar of the new *parent power,* FES was transplanted here from NYC, thanks to the aforementioned largesse of the aforementioned families, to marshall an army of parents behind the effort to lift the charter cap. The group quickly became known for such innovative marshalling techniques as automatically enrolling parents whose kids attended Boston charter schools in the parent army.
Was that what Duncan meant when he talked about authentic parent engagement? I wondered. It was hard to tell. He has a delivery style that might best be described as *fast-folksy.* Speed subs in for urgency, the anecdotes fly, and liberally sprinkled throughout are the *Arne-isms* that serve as glue, holding the whole contradictory mess together. The word of the night was *small-ball,* a catch-all dismissal of the kinds of local concerns that can gum up the works of the big idea guys. The debate over Question 2 was small-ball, Duncan told the crowd. He didn’t mention the 200 plus school committees and city councils in Massachusetts that are on record as opposing the ballot initiative—the largest collection of *small balls* in Massachusetts history. Instead he talked about data and Boston and how we shouldn’t be ideological. Then we we were off to Washington DC where scores are up, and Denver where there are scores more schools, and finally, we heard about a seven year old, who, if you asked him what kind of school he attends, couldn’t tell you.
Duncan’s endorsement of Question 2, the occasion for his celebrity appearance at the Education Party, felt perfunctory. He was far more convincing when he talked about what the Obama Administration left unfinished. Like the DREAM act which would let undocumented kids who came to the US as children pay in-state tuition to attend state schools. It’s a *no brainer,* as Duncan might say, but squirmy stuff for DFER. Governor Baker, the crusader-in-chief for lifting the state charter cap, is also the leading opponent of the Massachusetts’ equivalent of the DREAM Act. As for Duncan’s full-throated embrace of universal pre-k, it’s almost universally shared here. More than 14,000 parents are trapped on the pre-k waiting list, and voters have even signaled how they want to pay for its expansion: by taxing millionaires. This too is a topic on which DFER’s position ranges from silent to slithery. Meanwhile there are already signs that the next time the *bi-partisan coalition* behind Question 2 takes shape it will be to oppose the millionaire’s tax.
In a fitting bit of bitter irony, just as DFER staffers were putting the finishing touches on the Education Party trimmings, the subway station down the street, Back Bay, was being evacuated. A train engine overheated, filling subway cars with smoke, and panicked riders, who assumed that there was a fire, had to smash the windows of the car to escape. The whole subway line was shut down for hours, and five of the passengers were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. This is the sort of thing that seems to happen regularly in Boston now, the consequence of decades of disinvestment by political leaders who no longer believe in public systems.
The same GOP political operatives who were tasked by the Governor with orchestrating the *grassroots* campaign to lift the charter cap also oversee his transportation portfolio. The emails that the Globe reporters managed get to their hands on detail a plan to prey on the misery of commuters—whose trains cost a fortune, or never come, or are constantly breaking down—by getting them to sign petitions demanding that the legislature *Fix Our T.* Except that *fix* in this case really meant *privatize.* This was two years ago, and while the trains are still a stalled wreck, the governor’s plan to dismantle the T is on track to eliminating some of the only decent paying jobs available to African Americans without college degrees.
I decided to give subterranean panic a miss and walk the two miles through downtown to North Station instead. It’s a route I travel regularly and it perfectly capture the state of the city these days. Look up and you see the luxury towers that are springing up everywhere. Look down and you can’t miss the human wreckage of the heroin epidemic: people crashing out and nodding off, staggering around, broken. And if you don’t see it, you’re reading about it: the endless stories of addicts overdosing, being brought back to life, only to OD again.
On the same day that Arne Duncan came to the Boston, the Globe broke a major news story: that the maker of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, thwarted plans to limit prescriptions to the drug at the dawn of the opioid epidemic, planting the seeds for the heroin crisis that is now eating Massachusetts. The investigative reporters at STAT, the health publication launched by the Globe last year, are drawing ever nearer to the family behind the privately held Purdue Pharma: the Sacklers. Members of this excellent family, who recently edged out the Mellons and the Rockefellers on Forbes list of the richest families in the US, are known for giving back; their name graces the wings of cultural institutes aplenty.
Jonathan Sackler’s pet philanthropy is education reform; he is both a director of Purdue Pharma and a director of the reform movement. He sits on the board of the New Schools Venture Fund, which claims to have doubled the size of Boston’s charter sector, where he’s joined by Massachusetts’ edu-innovator in chief, Chris Gabrieli. Sackler funds charter schools and the efforts to expand them, he funds education reform organizations, and he gives to DFER-backed candidates, like Leland Cheung who ran against progressive Democrat Pat Jehlen this fall, and Chyna Tyler, who will soon be representing Roxbury at the Statehouse. Should the names of the donors who’ve flooded the various dark money PAC’s that are funding #YesOn2MA, including DFER’s, ever be made public, *Sackler* will be among them.
DFER’s Education Reformer of the Year honor went to Congressman Stephen Lynch for his brave public position in favor of lifting the charter cap, a position he has held since 1997. Lynch talked of the *inner peace* that comes from supporting charter schools, and shared an anecdote about Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo calling him before endorsing Question 2, asking Lynch what he should say. The district that Lynch represents includes South Boston, the part of the city among hardest hit by the heroin epidemic. Let me rephrase that. *Hardest hit* doesn’t quite capture the extent of what’s happened to Southie. Let’s go with *laid waste to* instead.
To his credit, Lynch was candid with the crowd about Question 2’s prospects. *It’s going to be close,* he said. And *we’ve got work to do.* Followed by *we’re not giving up.* All of which translates into what has been clear for months: Question 2, which started out polling up near 60%, has declined steadily in the polls since then. Everything about this campaign has been a dud, from the misleading, confusing and constantly changing messaging, to the decision to rely on donations from wealthy out-of-staters who won’t even identify themselves, to the ballot question itself, which takes an already complex issue and renders it, on the actual ballot, utterly incomprehensible.
DFER is making a final push this week to convince voters that *Real Democrats Vote YES on Question 2.* But cross off the Democrats who don’t actually live in Massachusetts, who aren’t in office anymore, or who haven’t been elected yet, and you’re not left with many. Which may be why that, despite the free drinks and the hand-passed hors d’oeuvres, the guest of honor and the Question 2 swag, the Education Party didn’t feel like much of a party. In fact, the event was an apt metaphor for DFER Massachusetts itself: small, lavishly funded, soon to be forgotten.
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