MTA President Barbara Madeloni said so far 'the 413 is no on 2.'
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Corporations and big business cannot buy public education.
That is the message that those opposing Question 2, a ballot initiative calling for raising the cap on charter schools by a dozen, is sending.
The opposition says the expansion of the charter school system will devastate the traditional public school system by allocating more public funding to the privately-run schools.
"The message you are sending across the nation is powerful. What you are saying is that big business, corporations, you cannot buy public education. That's the message that needs to be heard all across the nation," Princess Moss, treasurer for the National Education Association, said at a rally on the First Street Common on Saturday afternoon.
Moss was joined by many elected officials on the City Council and the School Committee, and from the State House and the corner office to rally support for the No on 2 campaign.
Locally, the City Council, the mayor, and the School Committee have all come out in opposition to the measure. Council Vice President John Krol estimates that charter schools pull some $2 million per year from the city's system. He says while the City Council pours over every detail of the budget, funded by taxpayer dollars, that level of oversight isn't there for charter schools.
"Here in the city of Pittsfield, $2 million goes out the door each and every year, $2 million goes to our charter school and how much oversight do we have of those $2 million? The answer is zero, absolutely none," Krol said. "In my book, I would call that taxation without representation."
The opponents say the traditional public school and charter schools are not on a level playing field, particularly when it comes to the student body. Charter schools have the ability to send students who are not living up to their standards back to the traditional school system, a luxury the traditional schools don't have.
"The commonwealth of Massachusetts is an innovator in public education historically. What is public education? Education for everyone and not just a handful of students, not just students who win a lottery, and not just students who have parents engaged enough to go through a process of school choice," Krol said.
United Educators of Pittsfield President Brendan Sheran compared the "two-track" system to that of two police forces. One police force is assigned to the nicer neighborhood, has the ability to banish criminals from the area, and the area has more wealth. The other force is in the low-income area, with higher crime rates, and does not have the ability to require anyone to leave the area. At the end, the nicer neighborhood force would take funding from the other force because it performed better by having fewer crimes.
Already, Sheran says the state is underfunding the school systems by $1 billion a year. Expanding charter schools would just dilute the funds that are available, making it more difficult for the public schools to provide high-quality education.
"That is a massive, massive number. If you think about that, if we expand charter schools in the state, cities like Pittsfield, towns like Lenox, cities like North Adams, Springfield, Boston, they are going to have a harder time to meet the needs of their kids if the funding is being pulled out to fund charters," Sheran said.
Mayor Linda Tyer says the Pittsfield Public Schools have a lot to offer — there are great programming and dedicated teachers. But, that doesn't magically happen.
"All of that heart and soul is backed up with money. It takes money to run a public school system. When we are put at a disadvantage by poachers like charter schools then that impacts our ability to continue providing excellent educational opportunities for every child in the city of Pittsfield," Tyer said.
Mayor Linda Tyer was one of many elected officials at the rally.
Tyer called on those involved in the No on 2 campaign to talk to people and share their concerns. Following the rally, the group numbering around 50 headed out for canvassing. The hotly contested ballot question is quickly becoming the most expensive campaign in the state's history.
"They are going to crush us with the money. They have dark money. They have more dark money than has ever been spent on a campaign. But we have each other. People have never won any struggle because they have more money," Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association said.
Some $33 million is expected to be expended on Question 2, more than double 2014's casino question. WBUR reports that some 75 percent of the $20 million spent to promote the question is coming from so-called "dark" sources — political non-profit groups that don't have to disclose donors. On the other side, according to WBUR's research, more than half is from in-state and the bulk from educational unions.
Madeloni is working on campaigns across the state and in Western Massachusetts, the polls are showing the No on 2 side outnumbering the "ye" side. She said so far "the 413 is No on 2" but doesn't want anyone to rest on their laurels.
"We've got to up those numbers even more. We're going to have Western Mass bring this home," she said.
For the next 10 days, across the state advocates will be pushing to spread their message in support of the public school system. Meanwhile, those in favor of the expansion of charter schools will be doing the same.
"We have the right argument. We not only have righteousness on our side but we have the facts on our side. It's a very nice combination," Madeloni said.
But to win, it will come down to votes and not dollars so state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier called for the "boots on the ground" to go door to door and share the message in opposition of the ballot questions.
"This fight is a fight against big money. There will be more money spent on the yes side of this campaign that was spent to get Elizabeth Warren elected as senator of this state. That broke all of the records at the time. Twenty-two million dollars is being spent on huge ads, on a lot of paid people going into neighborhoods to convince people to vote yes," Farley-Bouvier said.
"It doesn't matter who has as much money, it matters who has the most votes."
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