I remember being in elementary school right here in one of New Bedford’s dated but elegant old brick buildings, looking up at a sign a teacher strategically placed above the blackboard. It read “THERE ARE NO DUMB QUESTIONS.” I took that as gospel for nearly 20 years, until recently, when the news came down that Question 2, a clumsy attempt to trick, guilt and cajole voters into expanding charter schools against their own community’s interests, was allowed a spot on the ballot.
I presume you’ve seen heard the “Yes on 2” ads on television and radio. They insist urban kids need more charter schools. They say “it’ll be good,” that “We need this,” stopping just short of “It Will Make America Great Again and don’t worry and please don’t ask any questions.” Sometimes you’ll hear a Yes commercial and a No commercial back-to-back and the “facts” don’t agree. So what’s the truth and how will this affect New Bedford and its surrounding communities?
Last Monday, the New Bedford School Committee unanimously adopted a resolution to oppose Question 2 and to resist all efforts to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts as long as current concerns exist. Despite what the ads say, charter schools have an immense impact on the city and public school budget. Quick math: In New Bedford, the charter assessment is over $10 million. For that money, local charters educate about 900 students. If you put those 900 students back into New Bedford Public Schools, which are open, heated, and staffed anyway, hired more staff and bought more supplies for the new students, it would only cost about $3 million to provide those students with an education that is every bit as good, and often even better. Imagine what we could do with the other $7 million. Why should we expand a costly and inefficient charter system?
Other communities feel the same way. To date, 207 School Committees in Massachusetts have voted to oppose Question 2. Zero have voted to support it. These are, in many cases, publicly elected volunteers whose commitment to doing what’s best for children is above reproach, and whose level of expertise when it comes to education policy and school finance is unmatched. School Committees in the 10 largest cities have voted no, as they have in 23 out of 26 Gateway cities. 30 mayors across the state, including our own, also announced they are voting no; 96 percent of kids in urban district schools have a No on 2 School Committee.
Some are voting no strictly because of the potentially crippling budgetary consequences. In New Bedford, charters would likely stretch the budget to the point where we would have to consider closing some of our public schools — schools that manage to take everybody without a lottery or waiting list.
Some are doing it on the grounds of local control. Charter schools are not overseen by elected School Committee members. Instead, they have appointed boards of directors. One charter school in New Bedford is overseen by an 11-member board that doesn’t have a single trustee from New Bedford or SouthCoast. Their sister school, not in New Bedford and overseen by the same board, rates among the worst in the state in retention and discipline rates. I’m happy to help when New Bedford parents call me with an issue they’re having. I wonder who they call when inevitable issues crop up at a charter.
Others are voting no because they fear a political system that reserves a large role for the mega-rich, who have no skin in the game, to influence our politics. The “Yes on 2” crowd is largely funded by out-of-state donors in the finance industry who are able to donate without disclosing their identity or interest. My aunt can’t donate $100 to my campaign committee so that we can purchase some lawn signs or support a high school boosters club without her name being reported on a publicly available campaign finance report, but “Yes on 2” is somehow able to garner over $20 million from secret donors. They have spent much of that money on the rancorous PR firm that previously tried to convince people that John Kerry, a multiple Purple Heart recipient, was not a war hero, with the long-disproven “Swift Boat” ads. In fact, “swiftboating” is now part of the political vernacular, referring to unfair or untrue political attacks. Keep that in mind next time you see one of those ads.
Interestingly, many of those voting no on Question 2 consider themselves to be charter school supporters. They are voting no because the ballot question would allow a staggering 12 new charter schools in Massachusetts a year. The ballot question recklessly calls for too much expansion too soon. Marty Walsh, mayor of Boston, himself a charter school founder and advocate, is one of the 30 mayors on record against the question. He knows the financial impacts would decimate Boston Public Schools, just as they would here. You can be both for charter schools and against this question. Global Learning Charter and Alma del Mar in New Bedford do good work with good people, seem to enroll students in earnest, and have reputable members of the community on their boards and in their schools. Voting no doesn’t dismantle that. Voting no makes sure that untrustworthy, disreputable, and unwanted charters don’t pop up in New Bedford, hamstringing our truly public schools.
Since my election three years ago, I’ve shared strong opinions on a number of important issues impacting our schools. I’ve taken great pride in balancing all the facts and proceeding with a nuanced view that promotes good government, best practices, sustainability, and most importantly, the best interests of all the New Bedford kids who rely upon a great public school education to get ahead. It’s the same education that I got — the one that put me where I am now. My focus is improving our public schools, and no doubt we have a lot of work still to do. This ballot question greatly risks our ability to do that. I’ll be voting no on Question 2 when I head to the polls, and I sincerely hope responsible voters will join me in doing so.