I talk to Tracy Novick about what Question 2 actually says, and what’s behind the Massachusetts school committee rebellion…
EduShyster: I thought we could start out with a little TV viewing. Here’s one of the latest spots for the campaign to lift the charter school cap in Massachusetts, and it features none other than our own governor, Charlie Baker.
The spot is just 30 seconds long, but my sense of confusion persisted long after that. The Governor doesn’t seem to be talking about the same ballot question that I’m helpfully linking to here.
Tracy Novick: It is not accurate to say that Question Two is only about nine cities. Right now, when the state considers new charter schools, priority goes to school districts in the lowest 10% of performance. But under the ballot question, the district performance doesn’t even have to be considered unless the state gets more than 12 applications in a year. The largest number of schools the state has actually chartered in a year date back to the mid 90’s, when they chose six or seven in a year. Having more than 12 applications isn’t likely. That means the charters really could go anywhere. Question Two actually replaces a system where some of those nine cities are first in line with one where most of the time they won’t be.
EduShyster: I’ve actually been feeling a little bad for the suburban charter schools these days. They’ve been completely ignored during our frenzied debate. For example, the school with the longest wait list is the state isn’t in one of Baker’s nine cities. It’s Mystic Valley, which draws from suburbs around Boston and is in hot demand among parents who want a private school education at public school prices.
Novick: The same is true of Sturgis on the Cape, of the Advanced Math and Science Academy in Marlborough, and the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Western Mass. And those are schools that have some serious resources, in term of facilities and fundraising. I can really see boutique kinds of schools being very happy to open up in places like Cambridge and Somerville and Amherst and in the suburbs of Central Mass. These are the schools where somebody has an idea and thinks: *wouldn’t it be cool if…* And because the schools get the per-pupil rate, the funding in those communities is actually quite a bit higher than in the urban districts. For example, the Old Sturbridge Village Charter School that has applied to open manages to meet the state’s criterion in terms of underperforming districts because they scooped in Southbridge, but a lot of the people who are expressing interest in the school are middle class parents who are more interested in the ethos of Old Sturbridge Village in the 1830s.
EduShyster: At last count, 202 school committees across Massachusetts have voted to oppose Question 2. I will confess that as knowledgeable as I am, this was not something I predicted. As a former school committee woman yourself, are you surprised by the united response of your former fellows?
Novick: It’s definitely taken me by surprise. We don’t know that there has ever been this amount of united action by school committees across the state. And they’re doing it virally. They’re talking to each other. A school committee will read that another school committee has voted, or they’ll learn about it from parents or teachers. There’s a pretty clear rejection here of the story line that Question 2 won’t hurt anyone’s budget. School committees concern themselves with two things: one is policy, the other is budget. So you’re talking about people who spend months of the year steeped in school budgets. You can run all of the ads you want to and say that charters don’t affect the budget, but these are the people who know that they do. And part of what you’re hearing from Boston and other cities is that the state doesn’t fully fund the charter school reimbursement, either the budget gets cut or the city has to kick in the money locally, and cities have other stuff that they have to do. In Lowell, for example, the city has seen a drastic spike in what it pays for charter schools from the municipal budget. And as the city manager pointed out, Lowell also needs to pave its roads and put up street lights.
In Lowell, for example, the city has seen a drastic spike in what it pays for charter schools from the municipal budget. And as the city manager pointed out, Lowell also needs to pave its roads and put up street lights.
EduShyster: But just to be clear, this is entirely a suburban white movement fueled primarily by self-interest, correct?
Novick: I keep hearing that and think we need to work on our geography! DESE lists 24 urban districts in the state; together, those districts enroll about 29% of kids in the state. Of those districts, all but two have passed No on Two measures. That means that of urban districts, 96% of kids enrolled are in a district where the committee opposes the ballot question.
EduShyster: One of those districts is the one where you live, Worcester, Massachusetts. It’s also where I recently came across my favoritely confounding data-point. The CFO of the schools there said if the students attending Worcester’s two charter schools were to return to Worcester Public Schools, the district would have enough money to hire 150 additional teachers. My jaw is often dropped these days, but it dropped anew when I read that.
Novick: This is what happens when you end up with what are essentially two separate school systems. There are issues of economies of scale here but also scarce resources. We’re already running 44 schools in Worcester and PK-12 schools have seats in classrooms now. Were Worcester to get a sudden influx of 2000 kids, across the system, many of those kids could go to existing seats. With that many kids, there certainly will be places where you’d need to add another section of English at a high school or split an elementary class due to size at an elementary school. Once all that is done, there still would be enough for more teachers and because there isn’t a need for WPS to add a principal, a business manager, an HR person, or whatever other overhead the charters carry, that ends up being money that can be spent in classrooms. We’ve had this experience, by they way, because Worcester is one of the communities that had a charter school close suddenly. The school closed its doors in October and those kids returned to the public schools.
EduShyster: This week, the Globe published emails revealing that the campaign to lift the charter cap has been a tightly coordinated effort coordinated by GOP operatives. I know that, like me, you spent several hours of your life poring over these. Did anything stand out?
Novick: I was struck by the amount of effort that went into the initial launch around the ballot campaign relative to the media that came from it. I’ve done those sorts of press releases before, and you’re hoping for particular things to get picked up and reported. I’m pretty sure that *how much money did you spend on large screens?* was not what they wanted reporters to ask. Then you have the Boston kids who go marching out of school, using nothing but Twitter which cost them nothing and they end up making national headlines. I was also surprised by what they didn’t know. They had the list of where they thought the senators were on lifting the charter cap. And some of them were right but some were way off base. The level of coordination surprised me. Maybe I’m naive or idealistic, but I’d imagined that the governor was somehow brought in at some point. I wasn’t expecting that this was literally being rolled out from the governor’s office.
EduShyster: It is almost impossible to believe from our current vantage point, but there will come a day when we will cease to talk about nothing but Question Two. But until that day arrives, let’s talk about Question Two. What has surprised you about the campaign to lift the charter cap?
I’m continually surprised at how poorly they seem to understand the communities they’re talking to and about. And they keep putting messengers out in front who are not great at making their case and come across as really unsympathetic. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a room where someone is making the argument in favor of charter schools where it’s clear that they’re being condescending, judgmental and dismissive.
Novick: I keep coming back to the argument that UMass Boston professor Maurice Cunningham has been making about where the impetus for the campaign came from. I’m continually surprised at how poorly they seem to understand the communities they’re talking to and about. And they keep putting messengers out in front who are not great at making their case and come across as really unsympathetic. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a room where someone is making the argument in favor of charter schools where it’s clear that they’re being condescending, judgmental and dismissive. And it’s not just one or two individuals. At the national level, the number of people who feel like they have chits in this and have decided that the best use of their time is to spend it going after urban parents on Twitter is also bizarre to me. Or experts who decide that they need to explain to you how things really work. For example, the other day I had someone explain to me that charters don’t have kids migrating out and that they’re really doing a great job serving ELL kids. It was hard for me to convey in 140 characters just how much I don’t need to be condescended to by people from out of state when it comes to deciphering DESE’s spread sheets. This is actually part of my job. I really don’t need you to send me charts.
Tracy Novick is a former school committee member in Worcester and currently serves as the field director for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC). She blogs here, tweets from here and is an expert on all things #MAedu. She speaks here for herself and is not representing MASC.
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