Testimony of MTA President Barbara Madeloni on charter school ballot initiative

MTA President Barbara Madeloni delivered the following testimony before the Joint Committee on Education at a March 7 hearing on a ballot initiative that would increase the number of Commonwealth charter schools in Massachusetts.

My name is Barbara Madeloni, and I am the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

House Bill 3928 is about restricting access to many students by putting public resources in private hands.

As I begin, I want to be clear about one thing: Massachusetts has great schools — some of the best in the world, in fact. To the degree that our schools struggle, it results almost entirely from a crisis of funding. The chairs of this committee served on the Foundation Budget Review Commission, and they know the profound level of underfunding that many of our schools are facing. Moreover, we have in the Commonwealth a crisis of economic injustice from which many of our young people suffer in the form of homelessness, food insecurity and stress. The uncertainty that poverty brings to families cannot be overstated.

The consistent and pernicious effort to malign our public schools and detract from the real concerns of our communities is demeaning and destructive — not just to professional educators, but also to families, students and alumni throughout Massachusetts. The narrative created by Governor Charlie Baker and his New York hedge fund allies as they back the campaign for more charter schools is duplicitous and wrong.

Now to the matter at hand: House Bill 3928. Despite how it is framed, this harmful piece of legislation is not about allowing fair access to high-quality public schools. Rather, it is about restricting access to many students by putting public resources in private hands. It is about the slow removal of local control over the education system that is at the heart of our democracy. If passed, this measure would irreparably harm school districts across the Commonwealth for generations to come.

How would this happen? The approach is quite simple and very dangerous. Adding twelve charter schools a year — in perpetuity — would destabilize and eventually undo public education in Massachusetts. Already, Commonwealth charter schools cost local school districts more than $408 million per year.

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While it is easy to say that the dollar follows the student, we know that the costs do not. Look at Marlborough, which is losing a net $4.7 million in fiscal 2016 to charter schools. This year, local officials debated a multitude of cuts involving, among other things, freshman sports and the loss of three library media assistants, two high school teachers and eight paraprofessionals. But the local charter school still receives a check for a state-mandated amount, immune from fiscal realities. From Somerville to Chicopee, from Lawrence to Fall River, we see the same trend. Charter schools are creating a system that is separate and unequal. Indeed, after the Civil Rights movement and decades of progress, it is a profound shame that we find ourselves traveling down this road once again.

The state auditor’s report on charters — which should be required reading — exposes the misinformation that is part and parcel of the charter proponents’ narrative about quality and access. Yet we know that in the end this is not a fight about data or facts. It is about ideology: the ideology that government is bad and that an elite class knows best. Now the time has arrived to say enough is enough and to reject the many false promises that are being made.

Too much is at stake to allow this pattern to continue.

As a Commonwealth, we need to determine what we believe and make it clear. What are our core principles, and how can we create the public schools that live up to those principles? Do we believe that public education is foundational to democracy? Do we believe that every young person deserves a high-quality public education with access to the arts, physical education, and a varied and rich curriculum? Do we believe in elected school committees? In collective bargaining? In doing everything we can to preserve public schools in the state where universal public education was born?

On behalf of the 110,000 members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, I strongly urge you to reject this measure. Let's have a real conversation about what's needed in public education — and let’s soundly reject the continued drumbeat to destroy it.

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