California vs. Massachusetts education ballot question politics

Fifteen years ago, I am guessing, a ballot question in California to repeal the state’s ban on bilingual education would have been highly controversial, far more politically explosive than a ballot question in Massachusetts that would allow slow but consistent expansion of the state’s charter schools. At least in terms of spending on the ballot questions, you might expect a lot more money flying in California than in Massachusetts. But in 2016, it’s apparently Massachusetts Question 2 that has more than $15 million lined up on either side (combined). I could not find polls in California on Proposition 58 (the proposed repeal of 1998’s Proposition 227), but there are some in Massachusetts, which suggest that majority support from late spring may be melting (see the WBUR page linked above).

I suspect the vitriol in Massachusetts is only going to get worse, but from this outsider’s perspective, a few blunt thoughts:

  • Yes, the comparative participant benefits in urban Massachusetts charter schools exist, and by some pretty rigorous research are somewhere between half a magnitude or a magnitude larger than similar measures for voucher programs in general and a number of other policies with rigorous evaluations, let alone the pitiful outcomes of charters in a number of other states. Those who wish to explain this away (either with respect to local public schools or vouchers) have an uphill battle–there just aren’t (m)any good explanations of why this documented comparative participant benefit would be specious.
  • Yes, the expansion of charter schools under Question 2 could destabilize some local public school systems–not in the first year or two of expansion, but over repeated years. (The system in Massachusetts moves funding for the student to the charter school and is supposed to provide transitional funding for five years for the school district.) If a system had a number of charter schools open within its borders over five years or so, that could pose some interesting challenges for financial stability.
  • Yes, the Massachusetts Teachers Association leadership represents the views of its activists and likely the general population of public-school teachers in Massachusetts. In 2014, Barbara Madeloni beat the then-incumbent Paul Toner by promising to be more confrontational on a range of issues. She is not a leftover bureaucrat from some prior age but someone Massachusetts teachers actively and recently chose to battle on their behalf.
  • Yes, the money pouring into the question on both sides is going to feed distorted rhetoric in the next two months. “Poisoning the well” may be the wrong metaphor; try “poisoning the watershed.” From what I’ve seen on social media and a few news reports, I don’t think any advocates will be able to claim the high moral ground at the end of the campaign.


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