Harvard Students Mirror Mass. Split on Charter School Question

Harvard Democrats and Republicans have ramped up efforts to sway the large percentage of undecided Massachusetts voters on the contentious charter school ballot question in the days left before the Nov. 8 election.

Question 2, as written on the Massachusetts ballot, would “allow for up to 12 approvals each year of either new charter schools or expanded enrollments in existing charter schools, but not to exceed 1% of the statewide public school enrollment.” In Massachusetts, charter schools are independently run public schools subject to five-year renewal charters. The current statewide cap is 120 charter schools.

The question, one of four initiatives on the state ballot this year, has been contentious and dominated media coverage in the state throughout the past year.

According to data from by The Crimson’s election survey, a questionnaire voluntarily filled out by more 2,000 Harvard undergraduates and to be released in full next week, a plurality—35 percent—of respondents intending to vote in Massachusetts “have not decided” how to cast their ballot on Question 2.

While most Harvard voters are undecided, those who have made up their minds are effectively split. Thirty-three percent of Massachusetts voters intend to vote “Yes” and 32 percent intend to vote “No”.

State Democrats, usually unified on many policy proposals, have debated the merits of Question 2 for months. Mirroring the statewide split among Democratic legislators, the Harvard Democrats, and undergraduate group, officially support the No campaign. But members are divided on the ballot measure, according to Alexander Zhang ’20, the Question 2 captain for the Democrats’ Publicity and Policy Committee.

“We tell members that if they are on the other side they should feel free to put whatever effort they want into the other side’s campaign,” Zhang said.

Despite the schism, members of the Harvard Democrats distributed literature and went door-to-door on Oct. 16 throughout Cambridge, encouraging residents to vote No on the ballot measure. After a phone banking effort a few weeks ago, the Democrats will host another phone bank to garner support, according to Zhang.

“I do think the Yes side is rooted in a lot of concerns with a flawed public education system,” Zhang said. “But I don’t think the solution is to have charter schools and create this competitive system that is inherently unequal.”

Those in the No campaign have argued that increasing the cap on charter schools would reduce funding to public schools and claim that charter schools do little to help low-income areas.

Meanwhile the Harvard Republicans have expressed universal support for the measure, according to Treasurer W. Kent Haeffner ’18, who recently wrote an op-ed in The Crimson on the issue.

“The club is fully in support of question 2,” Haeffner said. “I wanted to make sure that we were putting those opinions out there.”

Massachusetts Republicans, led by Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79, have solidly backed the ballot measure, touting successful test scores in current Massachusetts charter schools and claiming that more charter schools would lead to more public education funding.

“We are big proponents of Governor Baker's,” Haeffner said. “The idea of choice and competition, those kinds of things, are very in line with the conservative belief in limited government.”

Statewide polling from Western New England University currently places the Yes vote at 36 percent and No at 45 percent among likely voters, with 18 percent undecided. Research conducted by The Mass Inc. Polling Group shows a similar advantage for the No vote. The ballot measure has, by far, attracted the most spending out of any of the four—as of Oct. 25, more than $26.8 million has been spent on the ballot initiative.

Last month, the Harvard Graduate School of Education hosted a panel discussion on the ballot question. Panelists included Marc Kennen, executive director and founder of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association and Boston City Councillor Tito Jackson, chair of the city’s education committee.

In September’s Democratic state primaries, incumbent State Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, who represents Cambridge, sparred with Cambridge City Councillor Leland Cheung over the issue. During the campaign, Jehlen, who is against Question 2, also publicly debated who she called her “real opponent,” the head of Democrats for Education reform, a pro-charter school group.

—Staff writer Joshua Florence can be reached at joshua.florence@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFlorence1.

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