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 →

Families for Excellent Trains

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 duncanDuncan 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. Continue reading →

If You Invoke Rawls, You Best Come Correct

Boston’s opinionator-in-chief Scot Lehigh invokes philosopher John Rawls to make the case for Question 2. But Lehigh is out of his league, says the Edulosopher, and his argument fails the Rawls ‘test,’ conceptually and substantively…

By Jacob Fay, aka the Edulosopher
Rawls.jpg (695×900)In a recent Boston Globe opinion column, Scot Lehigh invoked philosopher John Rawls to make an ethical argument in favor of Question 2. Using Rawls’s concept of the *veil of ignorance,* a thought experiment intended to help determine the moral principles of a just society, Lehigh tries to make the case that opponents of Question 2 are motivated by self-interest. Lehigh’s argument fails for two reasons. First, his argument actually doesn’t determine whether we should support or oppose Question 2. Second, a genuinely Rawlsian perspective would require asking very different questions than the one that Lehigh proposes: What if your kids were stuck in a poorly performing schools? Put more bluntly, Lehigh’s argument fails both conceptually and substantively.

As I read it, there are four steps to Lehigh’s argument. I have recreated them below, changing some of his language, but not the meaning:

  1. Nobody wants their own children to be stuck in *poorly urban performing schools.*
  2. Charter schools provide better educational opportunities for systemically-disadvantaged youth of color.
  3. Question 2 will not affect communities that already have good schools.
  4. Thus, everyone should support Question 2.

Continue reading →

King of the Castle

What kind of school demands $6,000 in *liquidated damages* from a teacher who changed jobs? This kind of school…

Image result for mystic valley regional charter schoolWhen I heard the story of a teacher at Massachusetts’ largest charter school who received a $6,087 *bill* from said school after he let them know that he wouldn’t be returning to teach there this fall, I had to know more. Surely there had to be some kind of mistake or miscommunication, and by *we’re claiming liquidated damages,* the school really meant *thanks for your years of service and good luck at your new job.* So I did what anyone playing the part of a journalist on the Internet can do. I contacted the teacher and asked him if he would consent to a tell-all on my blog. To which his lawyer said *please don’t.* But I was still left with another unanswered query—call it Question 2—what kind of a school goes after a teacher like this anyway? It’s field trip time, reader, and we’re off to a mystical land known as the Mystic Valley. 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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