Political News

Massachusetts' school ballot fight 2nd costliest since 2000

Posted May 13

— The fight over the 2016 ballot question aimed at expanding charter schools in Massachusetts was the second costliest school choice-related initiative in the county since 2000.

An Associated Press review of donations to school choice ballot questions and candidates found that spending on the 2016 question — which would have let Massachusetts add up to a dozen new or expanded charter schools each year outside of existing caps — topped $43 million.

Of the nine school choice-related ballot questions put before voters across the country since 2000, that level of spending was second only a 2000 ballot question in California, which would have established school vouchers.

Spending on the California question neared $63 million.

Both the Massachusetts and the California question failed. In Massachusetts, more than six in 10 voters rejected the proposal.

Those supporting the Massachusetts question included a handful of big money donors who rank among the top 48 individuals or married couples who gave at least $100,000 from 2000 to 2016 to support statewide ballot measures advocating for the creation or expansion of charter schools or taxpayer-funded scholarships that can be used for private school tuition for students in kindergarten through high school, according to the AP review.

Some of those top money donors to last year's ballot question hailed from out-of-state including: Alice Walton, of Arizona, a member of Wal-Mart's Walton family, who gave $740,000; Bloomberg founder and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who contributed $490,000; and John Douglas Arnold, of Texas, a Centaurus Advisors hedge fund manager and former Enron trader, who gave $250,000.

The top 48 donor list also includes Massachusetts residents who supported the 2016 charter school question, including: Edward Shapiro, a Wellesley resident and partner at Par Capital Management, who gave $225,000; Bradley Bloom, a Wellesley resident and co-founder of Berkshire Partners, who gave $150,000; and Ray Stata, a Dover resident and Analog Devices founder, who contributed $125,000.

All told, supporters poured nearly $27 million into trying to persuade Massachusetts voters to support the initiative. The opposition, funded largely by teachers unions, spent more than $16 million fighting the question.

The group spending the most to support the question — the New York City-based Families for Excellent Schools — contributed more than $17 million. The group has refused to say who is funding them.

Jim Stergios, executive director of the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, said there's still plenty of work for charter school supporters in Massachusetts despite last year's defeat.

He said the proponents should focus on the lowest-performing 10 percent of districts where charter schools can still be opened.

"Even without a ballot initiative being successful, there are a number of cities where there are charters available," Stergios said. "You try to provide access to good schools that way."

The ballot question was supported by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who appeared in radio and TV ads and campaigned door-to-door to support the measure.

Since the defeat, Baker has said he wants to focus on other ways to lower a stubborn academic achievement gap between students in urban schools and those in more affluent suburbs.

A spokesman for Baker said that in addition to increasing investments in early education, the administration has proposed increasing spending on all K-12 schools by over $318 million dollars since taking office and continues to pursue empowerment zone legislation and the expansion of vocational education.

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