MA school board chairman, under fire, donates $100K to charter school campaign


by Félix Pérez

The chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the state agency that oversees all public schools, set off a firestorm recently when it was revealed he donated $100,000 to a campaign that is seeking to lift the state’s cap on charter schools.

Paul Sagan, BESE chairman and a venture capitalist, made the donation last month, according to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance. He joins a select group of wealthy out-of-state hedge fund managers, individuals and groups that are financing ballot Question 2.

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“Common sense tells you that $100,000 impairs anyone’s judgment and impartiality,” said Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP and chair of the Campaign to Save Our Public Schools. “How can Sagan be trusted to properly regulate charter schools when he’s so invested in expanding them? The chairman needs to step down immediately.”

Sagan said he will not step down despite the apparent conflict of interest and ethical error. He said he disclosed the donation as required by the state’s ethics guidelines.

The donation “was made using my personal funds,” Sagan said in a statement. “Further, I believe my personal view on the ballot question in no way impedes my ability to execute my duties as the Chairman of the Board of Elementary and Secondary to Education in a fair and appropriate manner.”

Question 2 would lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Massachusetts, giving Sagan and BESE sole authority to approve 12 new charter schools every year.

That unchecked authority is one of the reasons public school supporters oppose Question 2. “This reckless charter school ballot questions sets no limits on the amount of money that Sagan and his board could unilaterally take from neighborhood public schools anywhere in the state,” said Cofield. “This is a blatant power grab by a wealthy individual who wants to control billions of dollars in state and local education funds.”

Steve Crawford, spokesman for the community campaign to defeat Question 2, said:

How can the people of the commonwealth have confidence in the board’s decisions when the chair of this board is funding a ballot question that will take local authority over the future of our public schools away from the voters and put it in his hands and the people who serve under him? This man took an oath to protect the voters and the laws of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, and for him to put up $100,000 to change those laws to enhance his power is outrageous.

The 71 charter schools in Massachusetts educate less than 4 percent of Massachusetts children — only 32,000 students — yet they will siphon off more than $450 million this year alone, money that would otherwise be used to improve learning for all students. Opponents of Question 2 say the amount of money lost will grow if Question 2 passes: $100 million more the first year, more than $200 million the next year, more than $300 million the year after that. In some cities and towns, charter schools can already take as much as 18 percent of a school district’s budget. That, say public school advocates, would result in the elimination of classes such as music, art technology and foreign language courses and leads to larger class sizes.

Opposition to Question 2 is growing. The Save Our Public Schools campaign announced last week that more than 100 democratically elected local school committees have now passed resolutions condemning Question 2. Not a single school committee or city council has voted to support the ballot question.

“School committee members recognize that the expansion of charter schools in Massachusetts creates an unfair two-tiered system of education, draining taxpayer dollars from our local schools and sending them to charters, which are unaccountable to locally elected school committees,” said Jake Oliveira, President of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and a member of the Ludlow School Committee.

Reader Comments

  1. This article by “someone” at the Massachusetts Teachers Association is typical propaganda emanating from the state’s largest teacher union. They’re very threatened by charters and the potential competition, as well as the loss of the too long monopoly they’ve held in public education. One question for the anti-charter crowd: If you lived in a chronically under performing district and a charter opened in your area, would you opt for the charter lottery or keep your child in the chronically under performing neighborhood school? Just as I thought.

    1. DO NOT ASSUME “underperforming” means the blame lies with the teaching staff. Teachers have been scapegoated for too long while other factors in the learning success of children have been ignored or downplayed.

      Maybe we should analyze the problems first; ALL of them in our increasingly dumbed-down culture.

    2. Paul is correct in that the MTA is essentially a propaganda organization for promoting anything that goes against change. Same old same old should be their motto. The disagreement I have is that while I believe the charter approach is a good one and valid, there is no money and there is not a level playing field when we compare them to traditional public schools. There is not a fair way to compare given the existing oversight and rules.

      It would appear that most proponents simply want to bust unions, which in itself is not necessarily bad but using charters is not the right approach.

      Simple question is this: If charters are SO GOOD, why doesn’t every public school everywhere move immediately to that format?

      Once that is answered, honestly, then a rational discussion and appropriate action can begin

  2. The article fails to note the ‘pretend-Republican’ governor, Charlie Baker has been noted to comment that he sees nothing wrong with the contribution issue described. On any given day it would take a mind reader to know from which side of the aisle Baker is on. Problem is the whole state legislature is Democratic and there appears to be little local outcry with regards to this nonsense. Makes one wonder why teacher groups support the Dems??

    I am not sure where the $$$ come from but there are lots and lots of TV ads touting the benefits of charters…. the biggest lie is that they will not take money away from public schools in general. Of course that is true, but they forget to mention that the pot is a fixed size so more buildings means less per school. No money being taken away form ‘public’ schools. As a good friend of mine says, its true but its not true.

    Additionally, to the unknowing, there are ads where little Miss Suzie claims, ‘I am a public school teacher and I think charter schools are the greatest thing since sliced bread,( thinking also illegal immigration and welfare).’ My money says Suzie is a public charter school teacher. The ads fail to not that detail.

    The charter schools in Massachusetts are staffed with young teachers, touted be the best and brightest, full of energy and new ideas. I am sure in many cases that is true but I have personal knowledge of several young, aspiring teachers who could not get hired into a traditional environment school and, for lack of better words, settled to get hired at a charter. Stayed a few years then moved to a regular public school for more money.

    People supporting charters are people like Bloomberg and others who are also supporting second amendment busting programs, playing on fears about anything everything in society; all in an attempt to assert more and more government control on everything we do.

    Time for term limits and a radical change in our elected officials. Toss ’em all.

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