In the midst of the presidential election it’s easy to get swept up in national policy, but we must not forget how the crucial decisions we make this November will affect our local communities. To much of Tufts’ student body, the words “our local communities” prompt memories of walks from campus to Davis Square, through Somerville and Medford, and riding on the Red Line to Boston. However, for a small number of us, Somerville, Medford, and Boston are home. For us, local politics are much more than mere ballot questions, laptop stickers, and yard signs; they are the wellbeing of our families, our friends, and our communities. Voting on ballot Question 2 is a pivotal moment in Massachusetts’ history that gives us a concrete way to fight back against institutional racism and systematic oppression happening in and around our campus.
If passed, ballot Question 2 would “authorize the approval of up to 12 new charter schools or enrollment expansions in existing charter schools by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education per year.”
According to the US Department of Education, a charter school is “a publicly funded school that is typically governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract (or charter) with the state or jurisdiction […] reviewed periodically (typically every three to five years) by the group or jurisdiction that granted it.” This means that charter schools are publicly funded and privately operated. They are paid for by tax dollars, but they escape the accountability and inclusivity that comes with public schools.
Currently, Massachusetts has 78 charter schools out of its 120 cap. This ballot question seeks to raise the cap by adding 12 new charter schools every year, anywhere in Massachusetts, forever. However, this policy will create a system in which charter schools take funding from public schools, compromising the quality of public education. To those of us who call this state and these cities home, this is not just political—it’s also personal.
In the voting booths this November, this ballot question may often be read as “Do you want 12 new schools built in the state of Massachusetts every year?” But in reality, this policy does the exact opposite. This ballot question will not simply build more schools, but will rather defund existing schools to build new ones, as the funding for charter schools comes directly out of the funds for the public schools of the same district. In theory, this would not hurt public schools, as they’ll be serving fewer students when those students attend charter schools. However, these new publicly funded charter schools will inevitably draw in families who were previously sending their children to private schools. Funding intentionally allocated for public school students is then repurposed in charter schools to serve predominately private school students. This leaves public schools with the same number of students and even less funding. If the cap is lifted, public schools will be defunded just as expansively and rapidly as new charter schools are established. This includes the Boston Public Schools, which are already substantially underfunded, as seen through last year’s student protests against large-scale budget cuts.
Charter schools attract a key demographic that traditional public schools do not—families who would otherwise be opposed to sending their children to local public schools due to the schools’ reputation and ranking, two things that are often connected to a school’s budget. Since charter schools admit students through a lottery system, members of the student body often have parents and guardians who have the resources and privileges to know how to apply to these schools.
And even beyond the issue of getting in, one’s socioeconomic status affects who actually graduates from these schools. As part of their quasi-privatization, charter schools are allowed to have a “no excuses” discipline policy, meaning that students can be suspended and expelled for any infraction, no matter the degree of seriousness, without any trial or judicial process as would be instituted by public schools. As Marlena Rose, coordinator of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, told the “Save Our Public Schools” campaign team, charter school students are “given demerits for non-education issues, like fidgeting in line, dropping a pen, poor posture in their seats, or incorrect colored socks or underclothing, when their parents may not be able to afford the required color or style.” A report on “The State of School Discipline in Massachusetts” showed that in 2015, charter schools in the city of Boston had an average discipline rate (collective suspensions and expulsions) of 17.3 percent, compared to the Boston Public Schools’ discipline rate of 6.6 percent, with some charter schools having a suspension rate as high as 70 percent of its students, according to the U.S. News.
Since the success of charter schools is often measured by their performance on standardized tests, this “no excuses” policy is often used to justify the suspension and expulsion of students who are perceived to be harder to teach. As explained in the Mother Jones report, “The Disturbing Reason Why Charter Schools May Have Higher Test Scores,” charter schools often intentionally overestimate how many students they can realistically support, because they receive funds on a per-student basis. This means that when they suspend and expel students who they see as less likely to succeed, they still benefit from the funds they have already been allotted for each of those individual students, thereby exploiting their education for profit. This policy unequally affects Black students and students with disabilities as “[B]lack students are four times more likely to be suspended than [W]hite students, and students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended as their non-disabled peers,” according to the U.S. News. Supporters of charter schools often highlight the marginalized students the schools serve, but it is exactly these students who are the first to be expelled. Charter schools move higher and higher up on the profit and success margins by exploiting Black, Brown, and disabled minds and bodies.
While charter schools perpetuate the systematic oppression of students who are disabled and racially disadvantaged, public schools are left to teach students who need more resources with a defunded budget. If we pass ballot Question 2, we will be furthering the institutional and systematic oppression marginalized students in the Boston area historically and currently face. We will be giving the exact students who need more resources fewer—and therefore allocating more to students who already have enough.
This is not to say that all charter schools exploit marginalized students, as there are undoubtedly success stories, which can and should exist outside the parameters of ballot Question 2. However, countless charter schools have been proven to profit off of public funding and close as soon as a few weeks after the start of school. While those who chartered these schools capitalize on the closing of a school within a year, the students who were displaced never get that year of education back.
If we allow ballot Question 2 to pass, we will have a role in the continued exploitation of marginalized students. We will leave students of color, students of low socio-economic status, and students who lack cultural capital with fewer resources than they already have in their underfunded schools. We will be allowing those communities already thriving—mainly White communities—to continue to profit off discriminatory systems like charter schools. We will ensure that the Tufts community of tomorrow will only have fewer students from our surrounding communities than it does today.