I talk to Yawu Miller of Boston’s Bay State Banner about the red-hot debate over charter school expansion in Massachusetts—and what *thought leaders* are getting wrong…
EduShyster: In a few weeks, Massachusetts voters will give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to raising the *cap* on charter schools. The issue has attracted a frenzy of *reporting* from outside of the state, much of it, shall we say, somewhat muddled. Since Boston is at the very center of the scrum, I thought I’d bring in someone who knows a thing or two about the place. Yawu: what are people missing about this story? Besides the fact that Boston is not a state, that is.
Yawu Miller: What I’ve noticed in the debate in Boston is that people are not against charter schools. They think that there is a place for them. They think that charter schools work well for some people, maybe for their own children. But they don’t want to see the kind of expansion that’s being proposed now. They think there’s a threat to the district school system if that happens. You hear a lot of people saying *I’m not anti-charter. I’m against this ballot question.* I think the funding issue has caused a lot of people who pay attention to the schools to come out strongly against this.
EduShyster: Let’s talk politics. This week Elizabeth Warren came out in opposition to Question 2. The issue is being characterized outside of Massachusetts as *one of the most important tests of social justice and economic mobility of any election in America this fall.* But support among officials in Boston in particular seems, um, thin. Am I right?
Miller: In Boston, most elected officials are quiet about it. There are a few other elected officials in other parts of the state, and Congressman Stephen Lynch. When the Boston City Council voted on a No on Question 2 resolution, 11 councilors voted to oppose the ballot question, two councilors abstained, saying that they didn’t want to take sides. One of the leading voices against Question 2 in Boston has been City Councillor Tito Jackson, who, by the way, is a long-time mentor at the Renaissance Charter School.1 Mayor Walsh, the other leading voice against Question 2, was a founding board member at the Neighborhood House Charter School.2 The rallies that Great Schools Massachusetts has had, and they haven’t had any for a while, were led by Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karen Polito, both republicans. The rallies seemed like they were all charter parents and it was notable that they were all during the school day and there were children there who presumably got time off from school. I think for at least some people this raised some questions about whether you can use school resources that are paid for by public funding to weigh in on a ballot question. I don’t think you can.
EduShyster: At the center of the debate about charter expansion in Boston is the issue of the waiting list. I get the sense that the architects of the ballot campaign envisioned that parents who are, in their words, *trapped on the waiting list* would form a sort of pro Question 2 army. Has that happened?
Miller: I’ve not seen any evidence of that. I applied to three charter schools for my son, by the way. My son attends a district school that’s doing very well, so it doesn’t mean that he’s trapped in a failing school, even though, presumably, we’re still on the waitlist. That whole notion that there are 11,000 students in Boston who are on charter waitlists is hotly contested. The fact is that there are waitlists throughout the city. There’s a competition for schools that perform well or that have sought-after programs, even if they don’t have the high MCAS scores that many people think are a benchmark of a high-performing schools. We’re on a waitlist for the Rafael Hernandez school which has a tremendously popular bilingual immersion program. I live less than a mile from the school but because it draws from a city-wide base, my son ended up being number 34 on the waitlist and that number hasn’t moved because it’s a really popular school. I think this whole issue has sparked a lot of conversation that’s gone sideways from where I think Great Schools Massachusetts wanted it to go.
That whole notion that there are 11,000 students in Boston who are on charter waitlists is hotly contested. The fact is that there are waitlists throughout the city. There’s a competition for schools that perform well or that have sought-after programs, even if they don’t have the high MCAS scores that many people think are a benchmark of a high-performing schools.
EduShyster: I talk to charter school advocates outside of Massachusetts and they seem baffled by why this is even a debate. They’re blown away by what reseachers call the *effect sizes* of Boston’s charter schools, and that causes them to Tweet things like #unicorn and #nobrainer. In other words, if we just keep expanding the high performing seats, every student in Boston can sit in one. There’s no down side.
Miller: I think charter schools in Boston have been a fairly positive experience for a lot of kids. You hear from a lot of parents that this absolutely works—that this was the best thing for my son. And if I had a kid who *colored in the lines,* not like me or my son, I would definitely consider sending him to a charter school. But there are also a lot of kids who’ve been pushed out as a result of excessive discipline. We saw from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights report that charter schools had suspension rates that were 20-30% higher than the Boston Public Schools. One school, Roxbury Prep, had suspension rates of more than 60% one year. To me that’s just inconceivable. I’m trying to imagine what that must be like to sit in a classroom and 60% of your classmates have been suspended. And those are often the kids who end up leaving. They can’t take it any more, or their parents can’t keep taking time off of work to go and pick them up every time they get suspended. In the wealthier suburbs you don’t see those same levels of suspensions and expulsions. You don’t have uniform policies. You don’t have students lining up in between classes and not talking to each other. Students aren’t given demerits for not making eye contact.
EduShyster: Media coverage of Question 2, and of charter schools more generally, has turned much more critical of late, including by your newspaper and by, gasp, the Boston Globe. Of course certain editorial fixtures at the Globe have remained true to the *no brainer* position…
Miller: Initially the media coverage was pretty uncritical. I think when the campaign finance data came in, you really saw the media start paying attention and asking some critical questions. The Banner has covered charter schools over the year, some stories positive, some critical. But when Families for Excellent Schools moved in back in 2014, before they morphed into Great Schools Massachusetts, it prompted me to take a closer look at what was happening in Boston. It was really difficult to understand who they were and why they were here. They had a big rally at Faneuil Hall, where they announced that there are 77,000 students in failing schools in Massachusetts. Everybody was wearing t-shirts. They all had hand-lettered signs written in the same handwriting. There was staging and lighting—it looked very much like an astroturf event. I asked the guy who was heading FES at the time what they were going to ask of the legislature and he had no definite answers beyond *we just want every student to have a shot at an excellent education.* We’ve gotten complaints from Great Schools Massachusetts that our coverage is biased, but there’s been so much to write about. And there have been so many *astroturf* elements to this campaign that it makes you want to look deeper and ask more questions.
EduShyster: The Question 2 campaign has unfolded in some really surprising ways. I never would have predicted, for example, that the decision to rely on *dark money* to fund an enormous ad campaign would trigger such a backlash. What’s surprised you?
Miller: Early on, the No on 2 side said that they were really going to push a campaign where they were going to lay out the facts. One of the organizers told me that *when people hear the facts they’re going to be with us.* And I remember thinking to myself, *you’re never going to win that way.* Facts don’t win campaigns—opinions do and they’re not necessarily based on facts, they’re based on emotion. I looked at the Great Schools Massachusetts ads and they’re really well produced. They have passion, inspirational music, violins, great visuals. And the No on 2 people are basically going door to door. I didn’t think you could win a state-wide ballot campaign with a ground game, so I just assumed the No on 2 people were making the wrong investment. But I think they’ve proven themselves right. They seem to have been able to get into some pretty far-flung communities and get their message out that way. I had the No on 2 side come and knock on my door the other day. I asked if they were paid or volunteers. They were both volunteers. I asked them why they had gotten involved and they said that they didn’t want to see funding cuts to the Boston schools.
EduShyster: Governor Baker did an interview recently where he predicted that if voters reject Question 2, it will *take the wind out of charter school development.* What does it mean for Boston if, as the Governor seems to expect, Question 2 goes down to defeat?
I think moving forward though that you’re going to see parents and city officials start to look more critically at charter schools. The story has been that these schools have really good student outcomes based largely on test scores. But people have been poking holes in these success stories, looking more closely at how charter school are run, how they’re managed and finding out that there are many aspects of charter schools that challenge the success stories.
Miller: If Great Schools Massachusetts doesn’t prevail and the voters don’t approve this ballot question, they have to wait another five years before they can bring a similar question to the ballot. There’s still a lawsuit that charter expansion proponents have filed against the state calling for a lift of the cap. It’s an interesting situation where the plaintiffs are pushing for charter expansion and the defendants are also in favor of lifting a cap. I think moving forward though that you’re going to see parents and city officials start to look more critically at charter schools. The story has been that these schools have really good student outcomes based largely on test scores. But people have been poking holes in these success stories, looking more closely at how charter school are run, how they’re managed and finding out that there are many aspects of charter schools that challenge the success stories. You’re also going to see people take a much more critical look at the Boston Compact, which is an agreement between charter schools and district schools to work more closely together. People don’t want to see the existing district schools, some of which are struggling, some of which are doing remarkably well, harmed by charter expansion. And it has started to seem like charter schools are seeking to expand at the expense of district schools—like there’s an intent to displace the public schools.
Yawu Miller is the managing editor of the Bay State Banner, which has been covering news in Boston’s African American and Latino communities since 1965.
1 An earlier version of this post misidentified Jackson as a board member at Renaissance.
2 An earlier version of this post misidentified Walsh as a board member at the Conservatory Lab Charter School. Thanks eagle-eyed frenemy reader for catching both!
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