Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat obtained additional portions of the postmortem analysis of why the corporate reformers lost in a state referendum to expand charter schools in Massachusetts (here is his first report). It makes for fascinating reading, both his summary and the original document itself. The Walton family and their allies invested millions in the referendum, hoping to increase the number of privately-managed charter schools in the Bay State. The Walton Education Coalition funded the postmortem, hoping to learn from the resounding defeat of the “Yes on 2” campaign.

The referendum was held in November 2016. “Yes on 2” advocated for expanding the number of charters in the state by 12 per year, anywhere in the state, indefinitely. “No on 2” warned that charters took funding away from local public schools. The YES campaign was funded by the Waltons, out-of-state financiers and corporate interests, and the New York City-based Families for Excellent Schools (FES). The NO campaign was funded mostly by the unions (including the National AFT and NEA) and small individual contributions. The YES campaign spent about $25 Million, the NO campaign spent about $15 Million. The successful message of the NO campaign boiled down to: “Do you support public schools or school privatization?”

If you read the original memo, you will see that the consulting firm really doesn’t understand why voters supported their local public schools and trusted teachers rather than the governor. Massachusetts public schools are the best in the nation, which raises the question of why the Waltons and FES decided this state was ready for privatization. Maybe they thought that if they could win in Massachusetts, they could win anywhere.

The second memo paints Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni as a radical villain, because she outsmarted the charter lobbyists. She mobilized teachers and parents and did not compromise, and her side won. The consultants don’t understand or sympathize with her point of view, so they call her an “ideologue,” who “vowed to stop the corporate takeover of the public schools.” She beat the privatizers, and she rallied the public to save their public schools. I’d call her a successful strategist.

Their recommendation to the Waltons and other charter friendly groups is that in the next battle, they must activate charter teachers to sell their message, to counter the messaging of public school teachers. In liberal states, they said, the charter advocates must pretend to be liberals:

” Consider specific Democratic messages, or at least targeted messages, particularly in liberal states. Advocates should test owning the progressive mantle on education reform and charters: this is about social justice, civil rights, and giving kids a chance. While this is a problematic frame for the electorate as a whole, it may speak to the values of a Democratic electorate. The initial message recommendations to refrain from splintering the electorate was not wrong; this messaging discussing achievement gaps or inequality have sunk in other case studies. However, it could be the right approach for liberals in this new Administration.”

There is something inherently ironic—if not comical—about the notion of the far-right anti-union Walton Family donning the garb of “social justice” and “civil rights” to sell their non-union charter chains.

After the Question 2 referendum was defeated by a large margin, the Massachusetts campaign finance board fined Families for Excellent Schools $426,000 dollars for failing to reveal the names of its donors (“Dark Money”) and banned it from operating in Massachusetts for five years. Soon after, FES closed its doors in reaction to a #MeToo scandal involving its CEO.

Supporters of public schools can learn about the thinking of the charter lobbyists by reading these memos and preparing for the battles ahead, if the charter lobbyists ever again dare to compete in a referendum instead of their customary practice of giving campaign contributions to legislators and governors.

Maurice Cunningham, the University of Massachusetts political science professor who tracks Dark Money, said this on Twitter about the secret memo:

“My initial reading reaction. 1. Without Walton and Strategic Grant Partners money, there is no Q2. 2. Voters hate Walton money and corporate education interests – the whole Financial Privatization Cabal. 3. @bmadeloni was absolutely right. #MaEdu #mapoli #bospoli”