Charter schools ballot question forum reveals controversies, divisions

Professor Steve Cohen speaks while moderating the Question 2 Forum co-sponsored with the Department of Education, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, and JumboVote on Oct. 27. (Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily)

Four leading supporters and opponents of Question 2 on the Massachusetts Ballot regarding charter schools met in a public forum in the Cabot Intercultural Center on Oct. 27 to debate and discuss increasing the cap on the annual addition of new charter schools to 12.

Approximately 50 people attended the forum, which was moderated by Senior Lecturer of Education Steve Cohen and hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, JumboVote, the Department of Political Science and the Department of Education. Panelists included State Sen. Pat Jehlen, Somerville Teachers Association President Jackie Lawrence, Massachusetts State Director for Democrats for Education Reform Liam Kerr and Massachusetts State Director for Families for Excellent Schools Keri Lorenzo.

The forum began with a brief speech by each panelist. Jehlen introduced the ballot question as a matter of choices and values.

“Legislation is about choices; budgets are about choices. They are about values,” Jehlen said. “If you ask people in my district what would make schools better … they would say pre-school education and full funding on the foundation formula.”

Jehlen noted, however, that the ballot does not give that choice.

“It gives us one choice,” she said. “It says we will expand charter schools for up to one per year. It does not provide any reforms for accountability, for transparency or for funding.”

In response, Lorenzo spoke about her own child, a student with special-needs, who moved from the public school system to a charter school.

“As a parent, it is devastating to watch your kid start to fall through the cracks,” Lorenzo said. “I didn’t know anything about charter schools until someone actually introduced me to charter schools, and since [my son] has been in a charter school, he has blossomed and he has opened himself in ways I could never have imagined.”

Lorenzo added that she also found a community of similarly-minded parents who “want to have the option of taking their [children] out of … a school that is failing their [children] and have an alternative.”

Kerr said that Question 2 is the most expensive ballot fight in the country because of its controversial nature.

“There are obvious reasons why it is so politically contentious,” he said. “It should be contentious. Education is a public good.”

Kerr went on to discuss some of the background of charter schools.

“The last time the cap was lifted was because the Obama administration came in and said … ‘I am going to put in 250 million dollars into Massachusetts and you are going to lift the charter cap,'” he said. “As Democrats, we firmly believe that we have to put more resources in.”

Speaking from a public school teacher’s perspective, Lawrence said that despite the mandate for charter schools to service like-populations of their sending districts, studies show that they do not enroll as many English language learners, special education students and economically-disadvantaged students as their sending districts.

Lawrence went on to respond to an assumption that this ballot measure would help failing public district schools.

“If this question was really about failing district schools, there would have been an effort to limit those 12 schools to the bottom 10 percent of districts,” Lawrence said. “This question doesn’t do that. This question opens up 12 charter schools anywhere.”

Lorenzo responded to the topic from a personal point of view.

“What I am not on board with is the fact that there is this expectation that I have got time to lose here,” Lorenzo said. “I have a four-year-old, a five-year-old and a nine-year-old. I am not going to go home tonight and be like … ‘You know what, sorry, you’re gonna have to go to this failing school … we can’t help you, bud, until we help everybody.'”

The forum grew contentious as the evening proceeded, with increasing interruptions by the panelists and audience members during the speeches. However, Cohen was able to bring the forum to a close by reflecting on the greater American school system in general.

“One thing I really want you to think about is the way schools have been funded and the way schools have been asked to take on the job of educating Americans,” he said. “What we really have is a school system that is being asked to do everything … that’s what’s at stake here in 2016.”