Massachusetts voters will be deciding in a few weeks whether to expand charter schools in the state. By all rights, the measure should be winning by a landslide. Rigorous evaluations of existing Boston charters show large test score gains. Charter supporters are spending millions to blanket the airwaves with ads. And following what appears to be the new ed reform ideal model, Massachusetts charters predominantly serve highly disadvantaged communities, so they have positioned themselves as the progressive promoters of social justice.
Despite all of this, Question 2 is trailing by double digits in recent polls and appears headed for defeat. Why? As I’ve written recently, ed reformers appear to have become so obsessed with social justice virtue-signaling that they’ve forgotten how politics actually works. Narrowly targeting programs toward disadvantaged communities leaves programs politically vulnerable to harmful regulation, restriction, or repeal. As much as disadvantaged communities desperately need education improvement, they tend to be poorly positioned to advocate for those efforts politically.
If you want to help the poor, you should design programs that include the middle and upper-middle classes. This is the political genius of Social Security. It is extremely effective at alleviating poverty among low-income seniors because high income seniors, who tend to be better positioned for political advocacy, also get it. This is the political genius of many college subsidy efforts — the poor can benefit from them because wealthier families are also eligible.
I understand that Question 2 is attempting to expand charters so that they can include more middle class and upper-middle class families, but those voters are unaware of how charters might benefit them because already existing Massachusetts charters have largely failed to serve them. And the unions and their local suburban school officials are doing a great job of scaring suburbanites about how a charter expansion might harm the relatively good arrangements they currently enjoy.
Charters in Massachusetts would have been better positioned politically if they had not previously neglected to benefit more middle and upper-middle class families. Then more politically-advantaged families could have learned about benefits from their own experience and through networks of family and friends. Ed reform needs to win by convincing middle and upper-middle class families that they can benefit themselves from creating and expanding ed reform programs. Trying to obtain their support by arguing that poor and minority families who live somewhere else would benefit is a losing strategy. Most political decisions are driven by crude calculations of self-interest, not high-minded appeals or guilt.
But ed reformers appear to have taken such a strong aversion to the rough political realities of self-interest that guilt is their dominant political message. For example Richard Whitmire attempted to shame suburban voters, tweeting to an approving chorus of progressive reformers: “All comes down to: Will well-off suburbanites deny better schools to urban parents?” The fact that Question 2 is trailing significantly in the polls provides the obvious answer to Whitmire’s query — of course suburbanites will deny better schools to urban parents if they think they might lose something and have little to gain. That’s how politics works.
Until ed reformers temper this antipathy towards more advantaged families, abandon guilt-driven political appeals, and embrace the political realities of self-interest they should expect to continue suffering a series of political defeats.
– Jay P. Greene