Friday, August 19, 2016
Massachusetts Locked Over Charter School Expansion, Offering a Glimpse of the Politics Playing Out at the National Level
The national opposition to charters from the NAACP and Black Lives Matter is strengthening the position of those at the local levels who might otherwise fold under pressures to expand charters. At least, that appears to be the case in Massachusetts. As some may recall, an advocacy group filed a novel claim in Massachusetts last year arguing that the state's limitations on the number of and funding for charters violated the state constitution's mandate of a quality education. The theory, in many respects, copied that of the constitutional attack on teacher tenure in California: if there is an education policy you do not like and you think your policy would produce better results, challenge the policy you do not like as an unconstitutional impediment to a quality education. In fact, it worked at the trial level in California. But as I demonstrate here, constitutional education claims require a lot more than this. The challenge to tenure was riddle with factual holes and the Court of Appeals eventually saw through them. But the charter claim in Massachusetts is not even theoretically valid.
The state's obligation is to provide a quality education in its traditional public school system, not create an alternative system of charters for those who want to exit broken schools. To be clear, broken traditional public schools are a constitutional violation, but the notion that courts could mandate charters as the remedy is an enormous stretch. Nonetheless, the threat this litigation posed and, more important, the rhetoric and attention it brought to the issue of charters appeared to turn the political tide. Numerous leaders in the state, including the governor, were voicing support for a change to charter laws in the state shortly after the lawsuit. Quite honestly, I thought a new charter law was a foregone conclusion a earlier this year.
The current story out of Boston suggests the pendulum is already swinging back. Democratic leaders are standing stronger against charter expansion. And given that this particular change being debated will disproportionately fall on minority schools and communities, their views at both the local and national level are sure to loom large. But as my posts the past two days show, the differences in opinion between local and national opinions can run deep. The interesting question in Massachusetts is the possibility that differences in opinion between state leaders and local communities may also run deep.