Monday, August 22, 2016

What Does the New Public Advertising Battle over Charter Schools Tell Us about Overall Education Debates?

Last week, the story was the potential rift between local minority communities and their national and state leaders.  This week, the story may be the amount of money being spent to counteract those those national and state level leaders who oppose charter school expansion.  The Boston Globe reports:

A new $2.3 million ad boosting the expansion of charter schools in Massachusetts lists the campaign’s top five donors on screen, in accordance with state law. But the singularly bland names, including Strong Economy for Growth and Education Reform Now Advocacy, give no hint of who is writing the checks.

Four of the five donors to the procharter committee are nonprofit groups that do not, under state law, have to disclose their funders, allowing the individuals backing the effort to remain anonymous.

The cloak of secrecy surrounding the financing of what could be the most expensive ballot campaign in state history has frustrated election officials and underscored the proliferation of untraceable money in political races across the country.

. . . .

The ballot campaign known as Question 2 — which would allow for the creation or expansion of up to 12 charter schools per year in low-performing districts — is expected to smash the $15.5 million that was spent, mostly by gambling interests, to defeat a 2014 ballot question that would have repealed the state’s casino law.

This influx of money could be coincidental, but one has to wonder whether it is a response to the charter lobby's sense that things are slipping away.  

Chater schools have had an absolutely incredible run of expansion over the past decade.  As I detail here, "[b]etween 2007 and 2012, the number of charter schools in operation grew from 4,388 to more than 6,000—a nearly 40 percent increase.  The number of students enrolled in charters grew even more, nearly doubling to 2.26 million."  Charter school supporters consistently spent money in select states during this period to help move more favorable legislation, but this new binge in Massachusetts may be a signal that the lobby feels that the only way to keep things going is to double down.

The interesting question will be what happens if the charter legislation like this begins to increasingly fail.  At the same time that charter school funding was exponentially expanding, states were enacting enormous cuts to traditional public education funding.  One can only hope that if states slow the movement of funds to charters, they will begin to replenish funding for traditional public schools.  That is certainly the underlying theory and call of the NAACP's recent position on charters.  My fear, however, is that charter school expansion was about more than just money.  It was about undermining the commitment to public education itself--at least that appears to have been the effect.  Slowing charter funding will do nothing to replenish that commitment. 

The other takeaway from the current fight in Massachusetts is that education may have become a partisan issue just like any other and it may succumb to corrosive fights, fueled by money, just like any other issue.  And its not just charter school legislation showing these signs.  Three years ago, after the state legislature had failed to fully fund education, a referendum on education funding was put on the ballot.  At first, it looked like normal local politics.  But then it became a focal point for national interest groups and the money began to pour in from all sides outside the state.  Ultimately, restoring funding to education failed, but the net effect of the advertising wore was negative according to some.  Advertising fights over education suggest the loss of fair and reasoned debates over the complicated issues affecting education.  Like everything else, education must fight for public attention and the lowest common denominator.

Charters and Vouchers, School Funding | Permalink


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