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Charter advertising war ramps up

Ballot question proponents, foes to spend millions

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

Come November 8, Massachusetts voters will decide whether to lift the state’s current cap on the number of charter schools operating here by voting up or down on a ballot question backed by a record-breaking $18 million in contributions. With Massachusetts teachers unions pledging another $12 million to defeat the question, the race will draw significantly more resources than any race in Massachusetts history.

The group Public Charter Schools for MA already has ponied up $6.5 million of their $18 million to reserve time for television ads in the seven weeks leading up to the vote, but that ad buy isn’t the opening salvo in the media theatre. For months, the charter group and groups backed by Massachusetts Teachers Association funding have been posting videos on social media that give a preview of the coming advertising blitz.

On the web

Great Schools Massachusetts website videos:

Save Our Public Schools website videos:

The media war is off to an uneven start. Pro-charter expansion groups benefit from a well-funded nationwide network of foundations and advocacy groups. In 2013, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools contracted with the Glover Park Group and The Word Doctors to develop messaging points for charter proponents to use in press releases, speeches and media interviews.

“The results are clear,” reads the report. “When we use words that work, people like what they hear — and that means more support for charter schools.”

The document counsels charter proponents to de-emphasize the corporate nature of charters, charter management and education management organizations, advising use of the word “network” instead. Under the heading “Say this, not this,” the document advises proponents to use the word “schools” rather than “businesses” or “companies;” “student share,” rather than “market share” and “families” rather than “consumers.”

According to The Word Doctors website, the group has an established track record of changing the terms of public debate.

“We have counseled Presidents and Prime Ministers, Fortune 100 CEOs and Hollywood creative teams in harnessing the power of language and visuals to change hearts, change minds and change behaviors,” the group’s LinkedIn page reads. Word Doctors CEO, veteran Republican strategist Frank Luntz, “is known for helping change the public vocabulary — he transformed the ‘estate tax’ into ‘the death tax,’ moved the public debate from ‘school vouchers’ to ‘opportunity scholarships,’ and re-cast ‘drilling for oil’ as ‘exploring for energy.’” Luntz also claims credit for persuading journalists and policymakers to swap global warming out in favor of “climate change.”

To win in November, Great Schools Massachusetts will have to persuade voters to vote “yes” on a ballot question that many voters don’t fully understand. Following the advice of The Word Doctors, Great Schools Massachusetts will need to steer clear of talk of school closures and keep the focus on the children. So far, they appear to have succeeded. Their 2015 lobbying events at the State House, staged by a professional production company, featured parents and students in the front row.

Messaging in action

In videos posted on the Great Schools Massachusetts website, parents and students are featured prominently. A former high school dropout speaks about how Chelsea’s Phoenix Academy changed her life. With the exception of Gov. Charlie Baker, all of the speakers and most of those appearing in the video are black and Latino women. In a video posted on the Save Our Public Schools website, the lower production value is immediately evident.

“Shouldn’t we improve schools for all children instead of taking away even more money from them to give to charters?” the narrator asks, rhetorically. The animated video plays up the $400 million that charters divert from district schools, showing resources like computers, books and science equipment disappearing from a classroom. As the narrator continues, windows go missing from the façade of a school building, dramatizing the loss of public school resources to charters.

Another video produced by the same group features five adults speaking about how charter school expansion affects local districts.


While the Great Schools Massachusetts videos rely largely on emotive testimony from parents of charter school students who urge voters to lift the cap, the Save Our Public Schools video relies more on facts and figures. The narrator cites a $1 billion shortfall in state funding for k-12 education and points out that charter schools receive taxpayer dollars but are run without public oversight.

The divergent paths taken by the competing campaigns in their videos underscore several key differences in their media strategies thus far.

Great Schools Massachusetts, which launched in January, has spent more money on video production, utilizing footage from a series of rallies the group staged and interviews with charter school students and parents. The videos are professionally produced and include inspiring music and cutaway shots showing children’s faces. The single animated video produced by Save Our Public Schools looks as if it were produced for a fraction of the cost.

Great Schools Massachusetts is relying more heavily on black and Latino students and parents. No white teachers or administrators are featured. The sole white person with a speaking role is the Governor. While the animated video produced by Save Our Public Schools features a few black and brown-looking animated characters, the entire video is voiced over by a white-sounding narrator.

Slow start

On the anti-charter cap lift side, the Mass Teachers Association- funded Save Our Public Schools campaign got off to a somewhat uninspired start with an April campaign launch event that featured union officials, teachers, community activists and no students (footage from this event appears in a video on the group’s website). That approach runs counter to the Charter School Messaging Notebook, which adheres to the widely-held notion that children are the most compelling messengers. “People want to hear from students themselves,” the group advises. “Testimonials of children telling their own stories move people more than any other communications.” Parents are the second most effective advocates, the group finds, followed by teachers.

To their credit, the Save Our Public Schools website exploits many of the very fears The Word Doctors flagged as damaging to pro-charter messaging, opening its webpage with a large $400 million figure the group says charters are draining away from district schools. “Our public schools cannot afford to lose vital funding while we see programs cut and activities reduced,” the website informs readers.

The charter school messaging notebook claims that voters “have a strong attachment to the idea of traditional public schools,” and are, therefore, put off by the idea of school closures. Education management organizations, usually the corporations that own charter networks, often depend on school closures for expansion into urban school districts. And as charters expand in many districts across the country, their larger share of public funding often forces districts to close schools.

The Save Our Public Schools website lists among its aims “Increasing funding to provide high-quality public schools for all children,” and “Protecting local control over schools.” The latter point underscores a potential vulnerability in the charter movement that local activists seem eager to exploit: the opacity of privately- run charter organizations, few of which have parents or local community members on their oversight boards.

With $18 million pledged to its campaign — much of it coming from the well-financed New York-based Families for Excellent Schools — Great Schools Massachusetts

seems poised to do well in television advertising during this year’s charter cap battle. Save Our Schools, which is expected to spend $12 million — most of which will come from the Mass. Teachers Association — seems to have gotten off to a slow start.

Voters can expect to see television advertisements airing after this year’s September 8 primary, as voters turn their attention to the November ballot.