In a feisty hour-long debate Tuesday over whether Massachusetts should expand access to charter schools, questions of funding and student-body makeup dominated a back-and-forth over a ballot question that Gov. Charlie Baker has put at the top of his goal sheet for this November's election.
Two prominent Boston public figures - one a city councillor and the other a former state representative - tousled in a live radio and online debate over what has become one of the more fiercely contested ballot questions being posed to voters in November.
A new MassInc poll commissioned by WBUR and released Tuesday showed the ballot question proposing to authorize the licensing of up to 12 new charter schools a year would fail with 41 percent of voters in favor and 48 percent opposed. Eleven percent were undecided in the poll taken Sept. 7 through Sept. 9.
Baker has staked a good deal of his political capital on the ballot campaign's success after the Legislature failed to reach compromise over the issue during the past session.
City Councillor Tito Jackson, representing the opponents, and former state Rep. Marty Walz, appearing on behalf of Great School Massachusetts, showcased many of the leading arguments for and against expanding charter schools around the state.
Jackson argued that the ballot question represented an unfunded mandate that would siphon public funding away from the local school districts that educate 96 percent of Massachusetts students, while Walz, a Democrat, echoed Baker in pitching charters as an alternative for parents - many of whom reside in urban areas with underperforming local schools - to set their children up for success.
The debate was hosted by WBUR, The Boston Globe and UMass Boston's McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. It was the first in a series of debates over the next month that will focus on all four ballot questions.
Jackson said that charter schools in Boston are draining $175 million of the $215 million in state education aid allocated to the city every year, hampering the ability of Boston Public School to serve its students.
"We need those resources to close that achievement gap," Jackson said.
And despite arguing against the ballot question that he repeatedly called an unfunded mandate, Jackson said he could easily see himself on the other side of the debate if more financial resources had been put on the table for all public schools, including charters, instead of pitting one group against another.
"We should be coming together as we started in 1993 to actually come together and brig up all schools and all children and leave no children behind," Jackson said.
Walz, however, took issue with Jackson's representation of the school funding problem in Boston, suggesting that Boston's school budget has actually grown year after year and consistently makes up 35 percent of the city's overall annual spending. Instead, Walz said the school funding issues in Boston have less to do with charter schools and more to do with the city's inability to "right-size" its budget to appropriately reflect its student-body size and needed bureaucracy.
The MassInc/WBUR poll found that 46 percent of likely voters believe adding charter schools would drain money from other public schools, while 38 percent say they would not.
When questioned about studies showing charter schools largely being run by boards without local ties, Walz did not dispute that fact.
"The point about local control is well taken," Walz said. "It is local control that got us into the situation that we're in where tens of thousands of children are being left behind by their local district schools. The reason charter schools exist is because local school districts have wholly failed to educate far too many children in this state."
State education dollars follow students from district schools to charter schools, but critics argue that districts do not save on the cost of electricity, heat, maintenance or personnel every time a student leaves for a charter. In recent years, the state has also failed to fully fund the charter reimbursement formula that is intended to help districts transition from the loss of the students to charter schools.
"What's really going on here is that the teachers unions are funding a campaign against charter schools because they don't want the competition, so you don't hear the teachers union complaining when kids go to a voc-tech school," Walz said.
Jackson and Walz also went toe-to-toe over whether charter schools are guilty of cherry-picking students, enabling them to show higher performance on standardized tests. While Jackson said charter schools educate a fraction of the English language learner students that the BPS enrolls, Walz said that issue was addressed by a 2010 law signed by former Gov. Deval Patrick when she chaired the Education Committee encouraging recruitment of ELL and special needs students by charters.
Jackson took particular issue with the rate at which charter schools use suspensions as a method for discipline to create an orderly school environment. He singled out Roxbury Prep for having the highest suspension rate in the country two years ago at 60 percent, which has since been reduced to 40 percent.
Jackson described one student in his district who had been suspended from Roxbury Prep by a "non-culturally competent teacher" for tapping his fist to his chest in what Jackson described as a sign of "love for his friend" in young, African-American culture. That student now attends Boston Latin and has been invited to the White House twice for his academic achievements.
"That draconian discipline actually pushes young people out. It steals away their zest and joy for learning," Jackson said.
Walz countered with a defense of charter school student retention and dropout rates, which she said in both cases are better at city charter schools.
In the two days leading up to the debate, much of the fire going back and forth had to do with a $100,000 donation made to the Yes on 2 campaign by Baker's Board of Elementary and Secondary Chairman Paul Sagan.
In the face of calls for Sagan's resignation, Baker on Monday called concerns over Sagan's impartiality as an evaluator of charter schools a "nothingburger." Walz did not directly address Sagan's donation, but did say she feared the debate was straying from where the focus should be on children.
Walz also defended out-of-state money flowing into Massachusetts to support the well-funded ballot campaign, suggesting the opposition was also benefiting from outside money.
"We're delighted when anybody wants to step up and support our efforts to support great public schools in Massachusetts, whether they're district schools or whether they're charter schools. The more help we get educating all of our kids in this state, that is all to the good," Walz said.
The next debate will take place Tuesday, Sept. 20 over a ballot question to regulate the treatment of farm animals.