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Charter advocates seek alliance with former adversaries

Yawu Miller | 8/28/2017, 8:25 p.m.
Now with the Fair Share Amendment much closer to becoming a reality, leaders of organizations funded by charter school advocates ...
Boston Latin Academy is slated to receive about $151,750 less under next year’s Boston Public Schools budget. Banner photo

This year’s sleepy municipal election season is a far cry from the raging ballot question battles of 2016, when a measure on charter school expansion galvanized local voters and attracted millions of out-of-state dollars in campaign contributions. For many, the bitterly-fought dispute over charter expansion was not just a matter of whether charter schools are effective, but whether the state could afford the cost without starving district schools. That ballot question focused attention on the manner in which the state funds schools, which causes charters to compete with district schools for the same limited pool of education dollars. At that time, many charter advocates argued against the idea of increasing the pool of state education funding through a tax increase.

“We’ve been throwing billions of dollars at public education for decades and not getting results,” pro-charter Great School Massachusetts Coalition director Shane Dunn said in a public forum.

Now, with a ballot initiative that would generate public education funding directed both to charter and district schools likely to appear on the 2018 ballot, leaders of organizations funded by charter school advocates are sounding a different tune. Three corporate-funded education reform groups — Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts, Massachusetts Parents United and Stand For Children — are seeking to join the union-backed Raise Up Massachusetts coalition that is behind the Fair Share amendment.

The Fair Share Amendment, better known as the “millionaires’ tax,” proposes to raise a projected $2 billion for public education and transportation by levying a special tax on all income over $1 million.

The potential entry of these groups into the fray has caused some controversy within the coalition, which includes the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Service Employees International Union and an alliance of community-based organizations that worked against Question 2 last year.

“A lot of resources that could have gone into the Fair Share Amendment went into fighting Question 2,” said an activist who works on the millionaires’ tax initiative.

Lewis Finfer, an organizer with the Raise Up Massachusetts Coalition, said the coalition has not finished discussing the groups’ interest in the Fair Share Amendment.

“We’re trying to figure out how to respond as a coalition,” he said.

Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts Director Liam Kerr points out that his organization has consistently supported increased funding for education. “We want more money for schools,” says Democrats for Education Reform State Director Liam Kerr. “We just want it to be spent well.”

But the irony of groups like DFER, which funneled millions of dollars of funding from wealthy Wall Street investors in support of Question 2 last year, now supporting the Fair Share Amendment hasn’t escaped Maurice Cunningham, associate professor of political science at UMass Boston.

“Millionaires in New York are paying groups to support a tax on millionaires in Massachusetts,” he said. “It doesn’t really add up.”

Unabated money flows

The dilemma facing the Raise Up Massachusetts Coalition underscores the shifting dynamics affecting the state’s educational landscape. Question 2 supporters spent $19.5 million on the failed bid to expand charters with more than 80 percent coming from out-of-state contributors. Question 2 was rejected by 62 percent of voters.