Public Education Can Win

Carlos Rojas Álvarez

In Massachusetts, students, parents, and teachers defeated a $23 million campaign to lift the state's cap on charter schools. How did they do it?

Bob the Lomond / Flickr

Interview by
Ella Mahony

A few years ago, the corporate education movement seemed virtually unbeatable. It was lavishly funded; documentaries like Waiting for Superman and organizations like Teach for America helped give it a liberal, do-gooder gloss; and politicians across the political spectrum dedicated themselves to squeezing teachers’ unions, boosting charter schools, and talking up public-private partnerships.

But this year things look different. The corporate reformers still have lots of money to dump on local politicians, but they appear to be short on momentum. The Democratic Party establishment has distanced itself from Rahm Emanuel’s messianic battle with the Chicago Teachers Union. High-stakes testing is increasingly discredited. And on November 8, Massachusetts voters handily defeated Question 2 — a ballot proposal intended to lift the state’s cap on charter schools — despite corporate reformers pumping $23.6 million into the campaign.

So how did Massachusetts defeat the privatization juggernaut? To find out, Jacobin’s Ella Mahony spoke to Carlos Rojas Álvarez, the student field director for Save Our Public Schools Massachusetts, a grassroots coalition of students, parents, and educators. We talked about the danger Question 2 posed to public education; how student and teacher organizers grappled with the legacy of segregation and racist schools in Boston; and how “No on 2” helped lay the groundwork for new organizing against Trump.

Ella Mahony

First just describe the basics of Question 2.

Carlos Rojas Álvarez

I think it’s important to start off by saying that the first charter schools in Massachusetts arrived in 1993 as part of the education reform bill that we saw passed that same year. The original intent of charter schools was by and large good and driven by the right reasons — mainly to create hubs of experimentation, innovation, trying different educational models and then being able to bring them back to larger school districts that were struggling with improving student performance and outcomes.

As so many good things are, it was quickly hijacked by investors who saw charter schools as a lucrative business opportunity. And so began the co-optation of charter schools, to open more and more of them not as places of innovation but as replacements for public schools — replacements where generally speaking private boards were in control of school policies, parent and student representation was nonexistent and accountability to the public was nonexistent. They were supported by public funds but operated by private interests that were successfully lobbying for tax breaks and incentives that made returns on charter school investment even more lucrative.

So we’ve known this has been happening for a long time. One of the most successful strategies of the charter school movement has been exploiting people’s fears about their future and their children’s futures, particularly peoples’ anger at the failure of public schools to deliver the promises that we hold as a society.

Now of course many of us understood that the reason why some public schools aren’t as successful as others has everything to do with wealth inequality, poverty being probably the biggest factor in determining educational outcomes for students. This is compounded by the attacks on public education, and the defunding and budget cuts, that we’ve seen in the past two decades.

The charter school movement has been very good at exploiting that fear and using parents and students who have been frustrated with their public education system, who were left with no real analysis of why public schools aren’t doing the best they can. The movement harnessed their angst towards something that looks good but is actually a threat to the communities they purport to serve, and a threat to all students and all families.

In Massachusetts this has been no different.

Massachusetts had a cap that was put in place because lawmakers acknowledged that the expansion of charter schools would have a negative impact on the funding to public school districts, and acknowledged charters’ problems with accountability, transparency issues, hyper-discipline, counseling out based on test scores, selective enrollment practices, etc.

This year, the wealthy funders of the charter school movement saw an opportunity to move away from that legislative process, where a true grassroots coalition of students, parents, and teachers had roundly defeated them year after year. They decided to depart from that process and bring the decision as a referendum to the Massachusetts public.

I think they were overconfident in their ability to win, so they poured an unprecedented amount of money into this ballot question. But parents, students, and teachers came together and we quickly responded to that threat with our own campaign to defeat Question 2.

Ella Mahony

Responding to your point about this being rooted in people’s fear for the future of their schools and feeling like they’re being underserved, in Boston of course there’s a vivid history of racist allocation of school resources. Were parents of color a base for the corporate charter movement, and do you feel you were able to win over those parents?

Carlos Rojas Álvarez

Yes we were. I have to say our victory has been one of the only bright lights in this dark time, not just locally but nationally. And one of our greatest successes was actually demonstrating, resoundingly, that white families and students and families and students of color are overwhelmingly in support of local public schools.

The charter school advocates deployed a campaign message directed at the racial and class prejudices of white suburban voters, who by and large turn out to vote more than urban voters of color, because of socioeconomic privileges. They tried really hard to tug at those strings. Our Republican governor Charlie Baker, who has been spearheading privatization efforts in transportation, tried to appeal to white voters with messages like “Wouldn’t you want your child to have more choices if their public school was failing, my children have the privilege of going to a good school, but what about those urban students who don’t have those opportunities?”

What they underestimated was our ground game, our ability to talk to a whole lot of voters about the reality not only of charter schools but of public schools. One, that charter schools exist at the expense of our public schools especially if they expand in number without taking into consideration the severe impact they would have on public funding. Two, we were able to address this misconception that parents of color in the city aren’t happy with their schools. We had lots of parents of color on the campaign, knocking on doors, as spokespeople at forums, at hundreds of debates across the state, saying “Actually, I love my school and I know my school needs more resources, not less, to keep succeeding or to improve.” I mean, Boston is one of the best urban school districts in the country and has demonstrated their ability to improve and turn around schools. Third, we shed light on the extremely irresponsible funding fiasco behind charter school expansion.

But beyond all that, some of our winning messaging tapped into the anti–Wall Street, anti-corporate sentiments that are boiling across the country, in large part ignited by Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign.

We tapped into this through the exposure of who was funding Yes on 2. The Yes on 2 cover group was Families for Excellent Schools Massachusetts — it appears like a group of parents of color and liberal white parents who care a lot about the community, but behind that is an extraordinary amount of money coming from Wall Street and hedge-funders across New York and Connecticut; we even saw the Walton family donating to this organization all the way from Arkansas.

We also saw really disgraceful collusion between state officials at the department of education like Paul Sagan and the charter school campaign. Sagan donated $100,000 to this campaign. He’s the chair of the board of development of secondary education in Massachusetts; in other words the person responsible for approving charter schools, responsible for holding them accountable, was caught donating $100,000 to this ballot initiative. So we successfully put the integrity of that campaign in question.

We shifted the consciousness, asking, “Are these funders’ interests really on the side of families and students or on the side of investors and corporations like Walmart, who not incidentally are the ones paying parents of color low wages?” So we were able to simplify the message and open the opportunity, in the state, in community forums, for deeper analysis over what interests were driving the Yes and No campaigns.

Ella Mahony

It’s interesting you mention Bernie Sanders because the Democratic primary results in Massachusetts showed Sanders dominating the rural areas, and then in Boston and the suburban areas it was very pro-Clinton.

But I’m looking at a map right now of the Question 2 results and that rural/urban political divide is just not there at all. The few places that voted Yes on 2 were small areas in Cape Cod, Nantucket . . .

Carlos Rojas Álvarez

Yes, Republican strongholds voted Yes on 2. I have a couple thoughts about that. One, if you look at the map, you can see that every community that the pro-charter advocates said were going to vote “yes” on two voted “no” on two. Any part of the state that’s poor and predominantly of color you can see we won those communities. Conversely our prediction that Republican, conservative, and well-off communities would most likely vote “yes” on 2 was also borne out.

Bernie Sander’s message was a huge boost to our campaign. But many Clinton voters also went with No on 2, I think because on such a local issue like public education, most left-of-center voters are increasingly on the same page about the need to protect the common good, to protect public education.

And while in previous years corporate education efforts have been firmly rooted in the Democratic Party, we’re growing a movement to reject that. I think we’re successfully pushing back and holding Democratic leaders accountable against these privatization efforts. This is why, with the exception of a handful of legislators, the majority of Democratic legislators in Massachusetts came out against Question 2.

Overall, there was a recognition that public services like education need to stay public and need to serve all people. People are not interested in creating special, more elite, more selective, isolated systems of education as a way to address the issue.

Ella Mahony

What was the role of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, particularly with respect to Barbara Madeloni’s leadership? She was first elected MTA president in 2014, and has steered the union in a much more confrontational direction since then.

Carlos Rojas Álvarez

Barbara Madeloni is an incredibly fierce and powerful leader that really has her eyes set on the prize and is able to talk to people and bring them to victory. The teachers’ union played a huge role in this campaign. Teachers are one of the most impacted constituencies of this question, and are deeply invested in doing what’s best for students and families. Barbara’s leadership, particularly around addressing racial disparities in public schools and prejudices within the teaching core, did an excellent job at rallying thousands of teachers across the state to act to save public schools not just wherever the teacher lives but in all parts of the state.

There’s a lot of work left to do; as Trump has demonstrated our racial and class divides are still easily exploitable, and lead people to policies that are bad for the working and middle class.

If we can continue uniting working people around issues of economic justice while openly addressing racial class divides — if we aren’t afraid to do that, to debate, to come together again and again, and come to an understanding — we have a good shot at building a strong backlash to Trump and the Republican takeover of Congress.

This was also probably the most coalition-based ballot initiative campaign we’ve ever seen in Massachusetts. I’ve spoken to educators and community organizers, they are in agreement that this is the campaign that most worked in broad coalition, not just with the teachers’ union but a huge array of labor unions who came together to protect public education. That’s one reason why we defeated this ballot question.

Ella Mahony

Earlier this year in response to budget cuts, thousands of Boston Public Schools students staged a walkout in protest. Was any of this energy channeled towards the Question 2 fight, for either Yes or No? What’s been your experience working with students on this?

Carlos Rojas Álvarez

Not to gloat, but I think my role as student field director at Save Our Public Schools was one of the most important components of this battle. We in the Boston youth organizing world convinced the campaign and Barbara Madeloni to invest in and believe in student leadership. So a large part of the campaign was made up of youth canvassers, who were paid for their work, and were able to talk to thousands of voters in the city and broader parts of the state.

The walkouts did a huge part in raising the consciousness of voters around the lack of funding and support. The fact that many people heard about the walkouts set us up for successful conversations with voters about why we need to protect public funds for vulnerable schools, and not approve the expansion of charter schools that would further damage them. So the walkouts BPS students led last spring, harnessing that student leadership into this campaign was a key ingredient for us.

Ella Mahony

Both of us were high school students in Boston when the public schools there experienced the first wave of budget cuts after the recession in 2009. Many students and parents protested, but there was also an anti-union strain to the protests rooted in unhappiness over seniority rules and a number of other factors. Can you tell me a little about the student organizing you’ve been involved with and its relationship to the teachers’ union?

Carlos Rojas Álvarez

So in high school I started organizing with the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) and Youth on Board (YOB), and as an undocumented student got involved in immigration advocacy and became the campaign director for the Student Immigrant Movement, the largest immigrant youth organization in Massachusetts. I was also a founding member of the United We Dream network. Through all that organizing I built relationships with students, with parents, and with educators and the teachers’ union, of course.

On the relationship between students and the teachers’ union, that’s been interesting. I think we’ve figured out a lot of things about our public education model, particularly how teachers are often set up as pretty oppressive forces in the classroom. Whether that happens along the lines of older adults controlling the thoughts of younger people; or a middle-class teacher with working class students; then you add race to that with a white teacher and a class filled with students of color. So it’s no surprise that students and teachers are not always on the same side of an issue. I see this particularly as someone who has worked in Boston student organizing. We’ve had many disagreements with teachers and the teachers union, and around 2010, 2011, we did see a lot of anti-union sentiments from students.

But youth organizers in BSAC and YOB made a very conscious decision that we would always work with the union and would never do something without collaboration, without communicating and staying connected. We were able to see and learn that labor unions, however messy they can be, however much they are on the wrong side of issues — and historically on the issue of race teachers’ unions have often been on the wrong side of history — are essential. Through this connection we saw that we cannot have an educational justice movement without teachers, without the labor union that protects them.

Today I think that anti-union sentiment is changing and we’ve been able to have lots of conversations with other young people about the importance of teachers’ unions and about workers — how people are treated at the workplace.

One of the fundamental pieces of misinformation put out by the charter school movement is that teachers are not doing their jobs well, that teachers’ unions are protecting bad teachers, that their salaries are bloated, that we have to bust the union, fire teachers, and pay them way less.

When people are desperate and can’t see their child succeeding, they turn against the teacher and blame them for the failures of the system. To combat this we’re working to foster conversations that help students develop a class analysis about the importance of supporting and strengthening teachers unions as a way to achieve true educational justice.

Ella Mahony

So what are the next steps for the big coalition that came together to defeat Question 2?

Carlos Rojas Álvarez

One is continuing to hold charter schools accountable for their lack of transparency, for not serving critical populations like English language-learner (ELL) students, students with special education needs, behavioral issues, etc. Two, there’s a continued fight against budget cuts, austerity, and privatization efforts. We’re about to enter another round of budgeting in the Boston Public Schools in December and are again bracing ourselves for cuts and potential school closings.

There’s also this larger vision, knowing that we have the most impact at the state and local level, for building groundswells against Trump. Here in Massachusetts we’re continuing conversations around the Fair Share Amendment — a progressive tax on the very wealthy — which would generate an incredible amount of revenue for transportation and education, two of the public services in the state that I think need the most help at this moment and suffer most from cuts and debt.

Those are the next steps for members of No on 2, to coalesce around something that will not only bring resources to public schools, which currently in Massachusetts are underfunded by at least a billion dollars according to a state commission. If we win the Fair Share campaign, it will send a loud and clear message — just like the No on 2 victory did — to the oligarchy that has taken control of our government that we can commandeer what people perceive as good economic and social policy. And it’s not privatization, not austerity, not more tax cuts for the wealthy. It’s quite the opposite.

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Carlos Rojas Álvarez is the student field director for Save Our Public Schools Massachusetts. He has also organized with the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) and Youth on Board (YOB); served as campaign director for the Student Immigrant Movement; and is a founding member of United We Dream.

Ella Mahony is an associate editor at Jacobin.

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