Charter School Advocates May Seek Ballot Question In 2016

It’s more than two years away, but advocates are already eyeing the 2016 ballot after the Senate dealt a blow earlier this summer to the movement to expand enrollment in charter schools in Massachusetts.

Reacting to that defeat and assessing their chances of changing the dynamics in the Legislature, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association has begun reaching out to supporters in the business and education communities, as well as potential donors, to line up the backing necessary to mount a ballot campaign.

“We are taking a very hard look at it. We’ll do some extensive polling in August and do a detailed assessment, but we’ve gotten a lot of support from potential donors and supporters in Massachusetts and across the country since the Senate vote, which I think surprised a lot of people outside the State House circles,” said Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association

If all goes according to plan, Kenen said, the MCPSA could form an official ballot committee later this year to begin raising the substantial financial resources he expects will be necessary to prevail with voters. “We anticipate it being a pretty expensive effort,” he said.

The Senate in mid-July rejected a House-approved bill that would have gradually lifted the cap on district spending for charter school enrollment by 5 percent, targeting school districts among the lowest 10 percent in the state for performance.

In consecutive votes by margins of 13 and 21 senators, the chamber shot down two different proposals to lift the cap, leaving charter advocates skeptical of winning over enough lawmakers should they try their hand at passing legislation again next session.

Charter school supporters say long waiting lists are proof that parents and students want more educational choices. But critics of charter school expansion efforts, including teachers unions, have argued the schools create financial burdens for traditional public schools that need to be addressed.

“It doesn’t seem there’s much appetite in the Senate for this and we don’t see that changing in the next session so we feel we certainly have to explore this as an avenue,” Kenen said, adding, “A lot will depend on the next governor.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, the GOP’s likely nominee in November, strongly supports an expansion of charter schools. Kenen said Democratic frontrunner Martha Coakley has been “more reserved.”

Charter groups began to take similar steps toward a ballot campaign in 2009 before the Legislature enacted a law in 2010 lifting the cap on enrollment and implementing other education reforms. The threat of a ballot question was used successfully this session to help prod the Legislature to enact a minimum wage increase and nurse staffing laws, but other efforts at compromise on Beacon Hill fell short leaving it to voters to decide questions about expanding the bottle bill, mandating earned sick time, and repealing gas tax indexing and casino gaming laws.

Kenen declined to name the firm that the MCPSA is working with, but said he expects by early to mid-September to be ready to make a final recommendation to the board of directors.

For now, the group plans to poll and continue reaching out to business and community leaders like Paul Sagan, a partner at Baker’s former firm General Catalyst Partners and the former CEO and executive vice chairman of Akamai Technologies.

Just how big an expansion the charter group might seek remains to be decided.

“That’s a big part of the polling. How big a cap lift to propose and for whom? Everyone across the state or just the lowest 10 percent? Or something different,” Kenen said.

The movement toward a 2016 ballot drive around charter schools comes as Massachusetts is about to get another player in the education policy arena. Families for Excellent Schools, led by Cambridge native and Brooklyn resident Jeremiah Kittredge, is preparing to set up shop in Boston after becoming a force in education debates in New York and Connecticut.

The non-profit, backed by wealthy Wall Street financiers, ran nearly $5 million in television advertisements earlier this year against new New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio, who had threatened to block the opening of three new charter schools. The New York Legislature, with support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, took back some control from the city over licensing and put in place new protections for charters.

Kittredge, who was recognized by Forbes Magazine with a “30 under 30” award for his work with FES, could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Kenen said he did not expect the group to become involved in the ballot campaign.

“They’re going to be coming into Boston and working with charter and district parents to have a stronger voice in both charter and district policies in the city,” Kenen said. “I don’t anticipate them being involved in the ballot question work, though it’s possible. While they have a history of being charter-oriented, I think there focus is both charters and district schools.”


More from WBUR

Listen Live