What Went Down in Massachusetts

Image result for marty walsh save our public schools ma

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh with parent organizer Malikka Williams.

Why the campaign to lift the Massachusetts charter cap went down in flames…

We were motoring around when the ad came on. It was one of those golden fall afternoons we’ve had a string of lately, the foliage suspended in a globally-warmed cocoon of brilliance, and suddenly there he was: Boston’s mayor Marty Walsh. Or as he pronounces it, *maeh.* Even with the mostly missing ‘r’s,’ his message was unmistakable: Question 2, the proposal to lift the state’s cap on charter schools, was deeply misguided. And he didn’t just mean bad for Boston, he meant bad for the whole state, making an already broken school funding system worse. *What were they thinking by going to the ballot?* my husband asked. Actually he said *What were they !@#$% thinking?* And for once I didn’t chide him for swearing.

I could give you a long list of reasons why Question 2 went down in flames. It was a complicated policy question that should never have made it onto the ballot. Yes on 2, despite outspending the ‘no’ camp 2-1 couldn’t find a message that worked, and was never able to counter the single argument that most resonated with voters against charter schools: they take money away from public schools and the kids who attend them. #NoOn2 also tapped into genuinely viral energy. The coalition extended well beyond the teachers unions that funded it, growing to include members of all kinds of unions, as well as social justice and civil rights groups, who fanned out across the state every weekend. By election day, the sprawling network of mostly volunteer canvassers had made contact with more than 1.5 million voters. Continue reading →

Order in the Court

gavelA lawsuit challenging Massachusetts’ charter school cap on civil rights grounds gets tossed. And that’s not a nothingburger…

No sooner had we been instructed to drain the words *drain* and *siphon* from our collective vocabularies than an order came down on from on high, ordering us to re-instate them. I speak, of course, about this week’s Superior Court decision tossing a lawsuit challenging the Bay State’s charter cap on civil rights grounds. It’s time to head to court, reader. And must I remind you that as t’is now after Labor Day, no white shoes allowed? That is unless you happen to be clad in white bucks on behalf of, well, white bucks. Continue reading →

Family Affair

Political scientist Maurice Cunningham says the campaign to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts is driven by GOP operatives and a handful of wealthy Republican families…

EduShyster: Ads in support of Question 2, the ballot initiative that will dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the Bay State, are running during the Olympics, and come with the tagline: *more money for public education.* I was prepared to give them a gold medal for, um, dexterity, but since the ads are being produced by the team that made the infamous Swift Boat ads that cost John Kerry the 2004 presidential election, I suspect there’s plenty more where that came from.

Maurice Cunningham: I think we can expect some rough stuff. This is a Republican effort, it’s a big money effort, and it’s a conservative effort. That’s where they tend to go.

EduShyster: There’s a well-funded effort underway to paint the campaign to lift the charter cap in Massachusetts as a progressive cause. But what you’ve found in your research is that this is basically a Republican production from top to bottom.

Cunningham: That’s right. There are a handful of wealthy families that are funding this. They largely give to Republicans and they represent the financial industry, basically. They’re out of Bain, they’re out of Baupost, they’re out of High Fields Capital Management. Billionaire Seth Klarman, for example, has been described as the largest GOP donor in New England, and he gives a lot of money to free market, anti-government groups. Then on the campaign level, you have Republican strategist Will Keyser who certainly knows his stuff, and Jim Conroy who certainly knows his stuff. They know how to make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t.

EduShyster: By *make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t,* what you really mean is that this is an entirely community-driven, grassroots campaign, correct?

Cunningham: No. There is no grassroots support behind this campaign whatsoever. What do we look for to measure grassroots support? We look for a campaign’s ability to find people who will essentially volunteer, who feel strongly about an issue and are willing to do the work that a campaign needs done. Two examples: signature collecting and canvassing door to door. Great Schools Massachusetts isn’t able to do either one of those things. When they had to get signatures in 2015, they wound up paying $305,000 to a signature gathering firm. And that’s because they don’t have people who are strong believers who will go out on the street and volunteer and be passionate and do the things that people do when they really care about an issue. Or look at Democrats for Education Reform. When they backed Dan Rizzo in the special Senate election earlier this year, they had to pay for canvassers because they don’t have people who feel strongly enough about the positions they take. The idea that these are community groups is completely manufactured.

EduShyster: Readers of this blog will recognize the name Families for Excellent Schools, a New York group that set up shop in the Bay State in 2014, and which counted our Republican Secretary of Education James Peyser as its *uncle* until about 15 minutes ago. But *families* in this case literally refers to six families.

Cunningham: The same small group of families that gave to the ballot committee, which is now Great Schools Massachusetts, gives to a private foundation called Strategic Grant Partners year after year. Strategic Grant Partners is at the center of this whole thing, and it’s where you really see the longer term view taking shape. Joanna Jacobson, who founded it, understands strategic vision and marketing. She comes from a corporate background; she has a Harvard MBA and was the president of Keds. Jim Peyser is a central figure when you look at who was involved, both as a board member of Families for Excellent Schools and in his former capacity as a managing partner of New Schools Venture Fund. They’ve been at this for several years now—much longer than most people are aware of.

*Secretive cabal* and democracy don’t go together—they just don’t. And if you say *let’s sacrifice democracy so we can have better schools,* that imperils us going forward.

EduShyster: Is it really so bad if a secretive cabal hatches a strategic plan and marshals millions of dollars from untraceable sources if it means more Great Schools™?

Cunningham: I think it’s terrible for democracy. *Secretive cabal* and democracy don’t go together—they just don’t. And if you say *let’s sacrifice democracy so we can have better schools,* that imperils us going forward. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said that we have to make a choice. *We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.* To me this campaign is about democracy vs. unlimited wealth.

EduShyster: Massachusetts is no stranger to divisive education ballot initiatives backed by wealthy businessmen. There was the measure that eliminated bilingual education back in 2002. Coincidentally, it was also the work of a Republican and also called *Question 2.* What’s different about the campaign to lift the charter cap?

Cunningham: We’re in the Citizens United era now, and that’s true nationally and here in Massachusetts. I think the application of a huge amount of money from a very small group of people who hide pretty well, that’s new. A good deal of this campaign is *off the books*—at least so far as campaign finance disclosure goes. I always look to see who the contributors that are listed at the end of the ad. Look at those contributors and see if you can figure out who the heck any of those people are—and you can’t. Basically you have what is a Russian nesting doll problem here.  These people hide because they know that if voters recognize who is really behind this ballot question, they’ll be less likely to support it.

EduShyster: I thought you were going to say that what’s different is that this time it’s about the kids…

Maurice *Mo* Cunningham is a professor of Political Science at UMass Boston and a long-time commentator on Massachusetts politics. He blogs at MassPolitics Profs.

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What’s the Point?

Even as the debate over charter schools in Massachusetts heats up, the ultimate goal of the experiment is anyone’s guess…

It’s time for a field trip, reader, and today we’re headed to a little place I like to call *an alternate reality.* Shall I summon forth the scene?

entering_brockton (1)A special meeting of the Board of Education is underway. Members have convened to discuss the single most successful school turnaround in state history: once failing Brockton High School, which 15 years ago under went a remarkable teacher-led transformation. Board chair Paul Sagan has allotted extra time to hear from teachers who helped lead the acclaimed literacy initiative, subject of national accolades (although, weirdly, mostly ignored in Massachusetts). Secretary of Education James Peyser has a question. Is it true that a third of each graduating class or some 300+ kids per year, at a school where 63% of students are considered *high needs* and 20% are still learning English, routinely qualifies for the state’s Adams scholarship, guaranteeing four years of funding to any public university in the state? Peyser does the math on his phone, then checks it on his other phone. He strokes his chin, musing aloud that this number dwarfs the combined total of grads from Boston’s charter schools, and, oddly, seems to include not just girls but boys too. Another question, this one from state Commissioner Mitchell Chester: this teacher-led concept sounds promising. Since every school has teachers is it replicable? At which point the Board members pause to check their calendars to schedule a visit so that they can see for themselves what lasting, teacher-led transformation looks like.

OK—so that’s not exactly how things went down. Instead, the Board voted to gift Brockton with a new regional charter high school that will compete against Brockton High by offering less—Look Ma, no art or music!—all the while draining an estimated 5% of the city’s total education budget per year.  Continue reading →

Class Act

Why a civil rights law suit to lift the charter cap in Massachusetts could turn out to be the worst idea charter proponents have ever had…

white-bucks-2 (1)Quick reader: when is it perfectly appropriate to wear white after Labor Day? Why, when one is a legal eagle of the *white shoe* variety. This week, three of Boston’s whitest white shoe law firms, WilmerHale, Goodwin Procter LLP and FoleyHoag LLP, filed a class action law suit on behalf of the kids, vs the state’s charter cap—a  day that we secretly feared would never arrive due to the seemingly universally held opinion that the suit is a terrible idea. Continue reading →