They went to war in Massachusetts over charter schools. On one side was Great Schools Massachusetts, a school reform outfit decidedly in favor of charters.
At issue was a ballot initiative that would have lifted the state's cap on charter schools, allowing the state board of education to approve up to 12 more charters per year.
The battle was noisy and costly, and in the end, charter proponents lost big. They’ll now enter a dispiriting period of reflection where the main questions will be “what went wrong?” or some attempt at finding next steps.
They should read “What Went Down In Massachusetts,” a recent blog post by Massachusetts-based education blogger Jennifer "Edushyster" Berkshire. Her forensics, though lopsided unfairly to the side those who fought the ballot initiative, are agile and smart. Yes, she is an anti-reform operative for teachers’ unions, but sometimes it pays to read your opponent’s mail.
As an outsider I can’t improve on her deft analysis, or approach her level of striking detail. Still, there is something unsaid about the moral undercurrent moving beneath her account, and about three important arguments she makes to answer for why the Massachusetts pro-charter school campaign went bust.
Searching for, but not finding, a message
It’s cold comfort now, but the truth is it’s hard talking to the public about complex policy proposals. It’s expensive, bedeviling work that is tough under the best circumstances, but that work is uphill in a partisan theater like Massachusetts where their states’ education system leads the country (including their charter schools). Votes there are preconditioned to be smug about their need for improvement, and unmoved by the idea that unique populations – like the urban black poor – have not fared as well in America’s illusory Bay State public schooling approximation of Finland.
Going into the campaign pro-charter advocates had one stealthy weapon in their arsenal. Charter schools in the areas of Massachusetts that charters would have grown – areas where there are waiting lists for access to charter schools - are breaking barriers for kids who need it badly.
Marcus Winters, an associate professor of curriculum and teaching at Boston University, writes “convincing evidence that students attending charters in the state’s urban areas—the areas where Question 2 would allow for greater expansion—are making enormous gains relative to how they would have performed in local traditional public schools.”
That success notwithstanding, Berkshire says there is one simple message charter advocates found impossible to mount, one that acted as a firewall between voters and their good sense.
She says charter advocates were "never able to counter the single argument that most resonated with voters against charter schools: they take money away from public schools and the kids who attend them.”
She’s right in one way. Telling people they have something to lose, and that there is an enemy trying to take it from them, is the easiest way to abbreviate public thinking.
You can turn people against same-sex marriage by calling it an attack on traditional marriage. Likewise, you can turn the fight for high-quality charter schools into an assault on traditional notions of public education.
Opponents of charter school expansion in Massachusetts couldn’t win on facts. They had to dislocate the truth and reframe “equity” in a way that created fear so powerful as to trump compassion for marginalized children well-served by charter schools.
Out of it a new form of relativist liberal emerged, I’ll call them neoprogressives, those who show all the self-interest of any conservative, while shielding themselves with the slippery veneer of liberalism.
All these "rich, entitled assholes"
Berkshire asks “Do you know why hating on the Yankees is such a popular pastime in Massachusetts?”
It’s because the Yankees are seen as “rich, entitled assholes from New York.”
The Great Schools Now campaign received funding from people who are rich. According to Berkshire, they might be classified as “assholes.”
As a disclaimer, my work is funded by wealthy people, one of which Berkshire guns for, Michael Bloomberg. I’ve never met him, so I’m ill-qualified to assess his temperament. The closest I’ve come to him was an event in 2012 (see his remarks here) he co-hosted with George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. They brought together a national network of people working on black male achievement issues including gaps in educational attainment, criminal justice, mentorship, and social programs. Bloomberg and Soros committed $30 million each to addressing the various social obstacles that challenge black and brown boys and men.
I left feeling impressed that there were wealthy people in the world who valued the service and advocacy work done by nonprofits like mine, enough to gift us with the desperately needed resources we need to do the work.
It’s interesting that Berkshire makes the billionaire-outsider argument to frame Bloomberg’s motives for supporting Great Schools Now. It’s the same argument made by the beverage industry against him in response to his $18 million worth of support for a California tax on sugary beverages. In that case Big Soda reframed it as a “grocery tax” that would hurt hard working families and small businesses (complete with a $10 million counter-campaign with black and brown faces who, presumably, would be hurt by a one-cent tax on bottled diabetes inducing poison).
I wish Berkshire were more forensic about the money trail flowing from a wide spectrum of wealthy people and well-heeled foundations through a social justice conglomerate funding teachers’ unions and their well-cultivated group of strategic allies. She should unburden herself from a truth that would make her writing more honest, including the fact that her husband, Russ Davis, who leads Jobs With Justice, an organizational member of the Massachusetts coalition that fought against Great Schools Now, benefits directly from the generosity of the wealthy people just as reform advocates do.
Jobs With Justice isn’t self-financing, in fact, they have been funded by Soros who is white, rich, and has an address in Bedford Hills, New York.
Given that fact, it’s in our favor, Berkshire’s and mine, to thank our financial supporters for their gifts, rather than play class warfare guilt-by-association games and call them assholes.
Truth be told, having Davis, Berkshire, and leaders like the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten conspire with suburban neoprogressives to recast school funding as an entitlement for unionized school districts rather than an allocation for the intellectual development of each child; and doing so on behalf of middle-class people who don’t live in the cities where they work or teach (and certainly are not putting their own kids in the worst schools that trap the urban poor); that might be the very definition of rich, entitled, assholery.
We allow them that deceit at our own peril.
You can't win a war with an Air Force alone
Finally, there is this thing about fighting air wars against ground troops.
Berkshire says “[i]n the end, charter advocates couldn’t marshal a parent army,” she hits on an inescapable problem. Unions have armies and they know how to use them. The troops in Massachusetts extended “well beyond the teachers’ unions that funded it.” They included “all kinds of unions, as well as social justice and civil rights groups, who fanned out across the state every weekend.”
By election day, their network of canvassers had made contact with more than 1.5 million voters and lied to every one of them.
It took unions decades to develop their ground game, and education reformers will never have the advantage of a deeply self-interested public workforce who commit themselves to countless off-the-clock labor hours.
Still, they need something more than fight for air supremacy. They can’t only drop leaflets from the sky and hope to change minds, because each time union soldiers will be there to intercept those leaflets before they even hit the ground.
Reform needs other armed forces who can win in the thickets, in the grass, and at the roots.
That doesn’t happen haphazardly or on the cheap, but it will be even more necessary as charter school opponents attempt to replicate their Massachusetts victory in other states.
Indeed, if you can defeat charter school expansion in a part of the country that has the very best charter schools, imagine what you can do elsewhere.
Education reformers reflect deeply on their loss in Massachusetts, but they should do so with equal parts sobriety and reason, and without falling into emotion, blame, or despair.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and, as Al Gore and Hillary Clinton can tell you, there is a little known third category.