Charter schools have briefly returned to the spotlight in the Boston mayoral race. Here’s why

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This article was posted on the Boston Globe by Stephanie Ebbert on September 11, 2021.

How did support for charter schools — a polarizing issue in the last open race for mayor — surface as a high-profile topic in the current contest, even taking up air time in the final debate of the preliminary race?

A political action committee supporting Acting Mayor Kim Janey used charters to contrast her with rival Councilor Andrea Campbell, who voted to support expansion of charter schools five years ago. In the first negative radio ad of the race, the Hospitality Workers Independent Expenditure PAC charged that Campbell “is supported by special interests that want to take money from our schools and give it to other schools that discriminate against kids with special needs.”

Yet Campbell — like the other four other major candidates for mayor — maintains that she does not support increasing the number of charter schools in the city. That decision rests with the state and there is no current campaign to change it.

“That’s the responsibility of the state, not the mayor’s office. My responsibility has always been in my focus on improving Boston Public Schools . . . so our children don’t have to choose another system,” Campbell said during Thursday night’s debate when asked if she believes there should be more charter schools in Boston.

For insight into the politics at play, consider the troubled recent history of charter school expansion proposals in Massachusetts.

Charter schools became the bogeyman of the last open race for mayor, in 2013, when ideological camps were squaring off statewide. Then-candidate John Connolly, a city councilor, was a charter schools supporter who had antagonized the Boston Teachers Union with his education reform proposals. A last-minute infusion of a half-million dollars in TV advertising — secretly funded by the Boston Teachers Union — was credited for helping Martin J. Walsh vault over Connolly to become mayor. (At the time, outside groups were not required to detail their donors until January after the election.)

Today, Connolly is among those championing Campbell for mayor through the Better Boston political action committee. He declined to comment on his involvement.

But the landscape has changed dramatically since that time, whenadvocates were pushing the state to lift the cap on charter schools statewide — a campaign that city teacher unions found threatening. Ultimately, Massachusetts residents got to decide the issue in a bruising 2016 ballot question that asked whether the cap on charter schools should be lifted and more schools created. Voters resoundingly said no.

Today, there is no viable proposal to expand the number of charter schools in Boston. The mayor could influence the future discussion but cannot act to produce more school choices for city families, and there’s no next step on the agenda for charter proponents. That makes a polarizing debate over charter schools a red herring, Campbell supporters said.

“We have the current cap and there’s no effort to lift it,” said former state representative Marty Walz, a charter backer who supports Campbell. “The mayor of Boston doesn’t have a role to play in the authorization of new charter schools, so it’s not clear to me why this is becoming an issue in the mayoral election.”

The former chair of the joint committee on education, Walz sees Campbell as the candidate who will improve Boston Public Schools but who “doesn’t demonize the educational decisions made by families in Boston,” recognizing that many turn to charters out of dissatisfaction with the quality of their options in BPS.

Asked earlier in the week why proponents of charter schools had chosen her as the candidate to support in the mayor’s race, Campbell said: “I have no idea.” Her campaign has no relationship with the political action committee they formed on her behalf, she said.

She even tried to “push back on that narrative” that the Better Boston PAC is dominated by charter school proponents, calling it “misinformation.” One top donor to the PAC, she noted, was Nonnie Burnes, a judge, a “fierce advocate for reproductive rights,” and a former insurance commissioner, in addition to being married to an education reform proponent. (Burns, who recently died, contributed $125,000.)

Better Boston has raised more than $1.6 million from an array of lawyers, educators, reproductive rights activists, and retirees, as well as notables like Jonathan Kraft and Joe Fallon. But it has attracted a conspicuous number of well-heeled leaders of education foundations and charter proponents, including Netflix founder Reed Hastings, a California resident who contributed $125,000, and Bill Bloomfield, a Utah businessman and political contributor who gave $63,000.

Harvard Business School lecturer Stig Leschly, the former CEO of Match Education, which runs charter schools in Boston, has contributed $125,000. Another $100,000 came from Stephanie Spector, a charter donor whose husband, Brian, contributed at least $525,000 to the 2016 ballot campaign to lift the charter cap. Chris Gabrieli, an education reformer who has supported charter schools, has contributed a combined $118,000 to the PAC with his wife, Hilary.

“Her campaign is supported by a Super PAC dripping in donations from those who want to take money out of BPS schools,” said Tiffany Ten Eyck, a spokeswoman for the pro-Janey PAC. “Compare that to Kim Janey’s campaign that is supported by hotel workers, Janitors and Stop & Shop workers.”

Better Boston chair Sonia Alleyne cast her PAC’s contributors in a different light: “What unites Better Boston supporters and voters is a firm belief that Andrea Campbell is ready to be Mayor on Day One because she understands the urgency of breaking cycles of inequities across every issue — from education to health care to housing — and has real plans to do just that.”

In 2016, Campbell became known for breaking ranks with all but one otherBoston city councilor by supporting a ballot question that would have lifted the statewide cap on the number of charter schools. Most councilors opposed the measure, known as Question 2, fearing new city charters would siphon off Boston Public Schools’ resources.

Janey was not yet a councilor, but voted against the ballot question personally, her campaign said. At the time, she headed the Boston School Reform Project for Massachusetts Advocates for Children, and was quoted by the Bay State Banner as saying: “If Question 2 passes, we will be in even deeper trouble than we currently are. It will be devastation.”

That ballot campaign was one of the most expensive and divisive battles in Massachusetts election history. Charter proponents were caricatured as out-of-town idealists who would divert taxpayer resources from local public schools, while union opponents were typecast as visionless hacks trying to preserve a failed status quo.

At a press conference this week, Campbell emphasized that she’s a product of the Boston Public Schools and her campaign is rooted in a pledge to make them more equitable.

“I want every constituent to go to Boston Public Schools like I did,” Campbell said.

“But I’m also living in reality,” she added, pointing out that Boston Public School admissions are decided by lottery, and many families opt for charters after not getting into a high-quality BPS school.

In her Mattapan neighborhood, Campbell said, children have a 5 percent chance of getting into a quality Boston Public School, compared to 80 percent in some neighborhoods downtown.

Campbell’s not the only candidate who has been receptive to charter schools. Janey’s grandchildren have attended in-district charter schools that, while not diverting taxpayer dollars from the city district, have a separate admission process. Mayoral candidate John Barros co-founded an in-district charter school.

As an education advocate nine years ago, Janey cheered the addition of a new in-district charter school in Roxbury. While noting she didn’t believe in charter schools as a panacea for urban education, she wrote on a Facebook post, “I am for whatever works when it comes to educating our children and I believe in a parent’s right to choose what they think is best for her/his own individual child, whether that be traditional BPS schools, pilots, charters, parochial, private, METCO, or home schooling.”