Rosann Tung is a parent in the Boston Public Schools and is director of research and policy at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. In this article, she connects the meaning of the successful campaign to block the expansion of charter schools in Massachusetts and the present moment, where public schools across the nation are under threat. The parent-teacher victory over the out-of-state billionaires was a resounding affirmation of public support for public schools. Please open the article to see the links to sources. Tung’s article is a good reminder of the importance of joining with allies in your district, town, city, or state. Every region has an organization that is supporting public education and opposing privatization. For help in finding your allies, contact the Network for Public Education.
On November 8, Massachusetts voters decided to keep the charter school cap by voting “no” on Ballot Question 2, with only 16 (mostly wealthy) towns out of 351 voting “yes.” School committees in over 200 districts passed resolutions against Question 2, because communities want local control over their schools and understand that the charter industry forces them to run two parallel school systems, one of which is not fully accountable to the community.
The ballot proposal would have allowed up to twelve new Commonwealth charter schools each year indefinitely. In addition, the proposal would have removed limits on the amount of money that districts can be required to pass through to charter schools, enabling situations in which charter school growth could eventually cause the collapse of urban public school districts due to loss of revenue. Raising the charter cap would have bled our districts of resources necessary for early education, engaging course offerings, and professional development, and crippled the system’s ability to improve public, accountable schools for all students.
Not all charter schools exacerbate inequities, but lifting the charter cap would have allowed the creation of more charters that do widen the opportunity gap for students historically marginalized by unequal systems – especially schools that are run by for-profit corporations or charter management chains, that lack transparency and accountability in their governance, or that follow practices such as inequitable enrollment, punitive discipline policies, or excessive focus on raising standardized test scores. Choosing to keep the charter school cap was a win for equity in our state’s public school system.
Given the election of Donald Trump as our next president, we need to use this win to continue the strong advocacy for equitable and accountable public schools that the No on Question 2 supporters organized. During the fight for Question 2, charter proponents raised over $26 million to support their cause, primarily from “dark money,” out-of-state, and corporate donors. The aims of these donors are aligned with those of our president-elect; Trump promises to further privatize public schools and reduce government’s role in public education. While Trump’s education platform lacks specifics and details, we know that he has promised to divert $20 billion from school districts and perhaps even eliminate the federal Department of Education.
Building on the grassroots victory over Massachusetts Question 2, we need to ensure that his administration’s policies do not succeed in: dismantling federal oversight for students’ rights to quality education; further privatizing public education through private and parochial school vouchers and the expansion of charter school chains dominated by large corporate interests; and traumatizing students of color and immigrant students through a culture of intolerance and government-sanctioned racism and xenophobia.
Given Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos, a pro-voucher billionaire, as Secretary of Education, the Trump administration will likely allocate Title I dollars to “school choice,” which includes a voucher program for students to attend private and parochial schools and the creation of more charter and magnet schools. This “portability” could reverse what 62 percent of Massachusetts residents just voted for – keeping funds in traditional public schools. Trump’s approach to improving schools through a market-based, competitive approach will reduce the ability of public schools and systems to improve due to funding and resource shortfalls. And it will widen the opportunity gap, since a disproportionate number of Massachusetts’ charter schools have zero tolerance discipline policies and disproportionately low enrollment of English language learners.
In the aftermath of Trump’s election, many educators have led emotional classroom discussions to help students process their reactions, which include sadness, fear, rage, and uncertainty. Students who are Muslim, LGBTQ, immigrant, undocumented, Latino, female, and/or of color describe anxiety over their civil rights and their futures in this country. Superintendents in urban districts around the country have tried to reassure students and families with public letters and offers of support and counseling. Now more than ever, under a Trump administration, we must provide civic education that promotes critical consciousness, teaches about structural inequality, and empowers students to voice their concerns, organize, and advocate for humane and equitable policies.
In the next four years, with Trump as president and with a Republican Congress, we must continue to demand inclusive, transparent, and accountable public schools that serve each community’s distinct needs and desires, rather than quasi-public, unaccountable charter schools and private schools. We must ensure that our public schools create greater opportunity for all of our students, especially those most marginalized by our inequitable systems.