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Politics

Biggest Ballot Battle In Massachusetts Is Over Charter Schools

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The most competitive and expensive campaign in Massachusetts this election year has been over a ballot question.  Opponents and proponents of charter schools have spent months canvassing door-to-door and waged an air war of competing ads.

If Question 2 passes, it would allow for up to 12 new charter schools per year to open in Massachusetts.  Charter schools, which were first authorized in Massachusetts in 1993, are publicly funded, overseen by state education officials, and can function independently of local school districts.

Proponents tout the ability of charter schools to experiment and innovate to produce successful teaching models and point to a current waiting list of over 30,000 children as evidence of the demand to open more than the 78 current charter schools in the state.

The critics of charter schools claim they underserve students with special educational needs and cause financial harm to district schools.

     The leading proponent of Question 2 is Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker.

" This is Massachusetts. We believe in education as a game changer and transformational opportunity for kids.  This one, to me, seems pretty simple," said Baker when asked to explain his support for Question 2.

The Republican governor in a campaign ad and in interviews aims his message squarely at suburban voters.

" If you like the schools your kids go to, you have nothing to worry about. This isn't about you," said Baker.

Most suburban school districts are below the state-imposed cap on charter school seats. Question 2 proponents say if there was demand in the suburbs, more charters would have opened there by now. The charter school expansion that Question 2 authorizes would impact urban areas that are now above, or near, the limit on charter school enrollments.

Thirty Massachusetts mayors have endorsed the anti-Question 2 campaign, including the leaders of the two largest urban school systems, Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston and Mayor Domenic Sarno of Springfield.

" All we ask for his equitable funding," said Sarno.

The municipal officials point to what they say is inadequate reimbursement from the state for educational expenses the district schools still face after a student leaves for a charter school and state per-pupil financial aid is transferred with the student.

" Here is how it affects us: On busing, I pay for that on the city side and it takes away from fire, police, library, parks, dpw, you name it. When charters open, I have to bus the charter ( students) and on their schedule and that costs me more money," said Sarno.

The two sides combined have raised $30 million, a record for a Massachusetts referendum campaign.  They have spent heavily on TV ads to try to influence the vote.

Top contributors to the campaign against lifting the charter school cap are the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the National Education Association. Charter school faculty and staff are typically non-union.

         Donations to the campaign supporting Question 2 include six-figure contributions from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and from the heirs to the Wal-Mart family fortune.  Other donors have been identified as managers of various hedge funds, according to Tim Collins of the Springfield Education Association.

   " The second-biggest pot of public money out there is education and these people are interested in dipping into that pot of money," claimed Collins.

   Public polls released in October had Question 2 as a tossup.  But a poll released Friday by Western New England University found 52 percent of likely voters oppose lifting the cap on charter schools with 39 percent supporting the proposal and eight percent undecided.

      Advocates who canvassed door-to-door on the final weekend before Election Day encountered many people who had already cast their ballots.  Close to one million people voted during the state’s inaugural 11-day early voting period that ended Friday.

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