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To Raise or Not to Raise the Charter School Cap? Mass. Voters to Decide

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UPDATED

A Nov. 8 ballot question in Massachusetts over whether to raise the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to open in the state has become the dominant school choice political story of this election.

Campaigns for and against ballot question 2 have raised over $41 million dollars at last check [UPDATE: these are the most recent numbers as of Nov. 8, 2016], and much of that money has come from national teachers' unions and out-of-state charter advocates and groups.

Prominent politicians, such as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, have weighed in on the ballot question, saying they are against expanding charter schools. Meanwhile the push to raise the cap has the backing of the state's governor, Charlie Baker, and businessman and former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

The most recent poll, from Suffolk University and the Boston Globe, showed voters evenly split on the charter cap question with 9 percent of voters still undecided when the poll was conducted.

An earlier poll in late October by MassInc Polling Group for WBUR, one of Boston's NPR affiliates, found that 52 percent of the state's voters plan to cast their ballots against raising the charter cap, compared with 41 percent who said they would vote yes.

Both sides for and against lifting the cap have been actively putting key surrogates—parents and teachers—on the front line.

I recently spoke with a district school teacher and a charter school parent about how their canvasing efforts were going, and what arguments they found to be the most persuasive with the people they've called or spoken with on their doorsteps.

Deborah Gesualdo, a music teacher at a district school in Malden, Mass., said what seems to move people the most were some of the most widespread criticisms of charter schools nationally.

"I think what resonates most is that not every kid can get in [to a charter school], and that special needs kids are often advised to leave the school," she said. "People listen, they have questions, and once I talk to them for a bit, they say, 'wow, I had no idea that charter schools don't take everyone and can tell people to leave.'"

Daphne Lawson, a parent of two children who attend charter schools and a paid organizer for New York City-based Families for Excellent Schools, said she has had to play a lot of defense while out canvasing.

She hears from people that they are not only concerned that charter schools don't educate as many special education students, but that they also drain money away from traditional district schools.

But Lawson has found that it helps to relay her personal experiences as a parent of school-aged children who wasn't happy with traditional public schools, but can't afford private school. She calls the district system a "monopoly."

"I equate it to Uber and taxis," Lawson said. "If taxis were doing what they were supposed to do, there would be no Uber."

Voters will decide whether to raise the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts tomorrow.  

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Photo: A sign urging a vote against a ballot measure that seeks to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts is seen at the McKinley South End Academy, a public school in Boston. —David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty

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