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.