The pitched battle in this state, known as a bellwether on education policy, reflects the passions that charter schools arouse nationwide.
BOSTON — The television ads are relentless, fueled by a historic surge of campaign spending. Fliers are clogging mailboxes. Both sides are knocking on doors across the state.
But in deep blue Massachusetts, the contentious campaigning is not for president but for a ballot question on whether to expand charter schools.
The pitched battle in this state, known as a bellwether on education policy, reflects the passions that charter schools arouse nationwide, particularly regarding a central part of the debate: If they offer children in lagging traditional public schools an alternative path to a quality education, do they also undermine those schools and the children in them?
Because Massachusetts’ charter schools rank among the nation’s best, advocates say a yes vote to allow more of them would send a strong signal that they have a crucial role to play in improving student learning and closing the achievement gap between white and black students.
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But opponents say a no vote would show that even in a state where charter schools have been successful, most voters believe the schools — privately run but publicly financed — undermine traditional public schools, drain resources and perpetuate inequities, and should be curtailed.
“What happens in Massachusetts will send shock waves throughout the United States either way,” said Parag Pathak, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, who studies education.
Question 2 on the ballot asks whether the state should be allowed to approve up to 12 new charter schools or larger enrollments at existing charters each year, not to exceed 1 percent of the statewide public-school enrollment.
Earlier this year, the charter proposal appeared to be nonpartisan and headed for passage. But in recent weeks, as the ad war has heated up, the campaign has taken on a partisan edge, with Republicans generally favoring charter expansion and Democrats generally opposing it, with the no side gaining steam.
Polls show that support for the measure has slipped. The most recent, from Western New England University and conducted through Wednesday, showed that 39 percent of likely and registered voters supported lifting the cap on charters, while 52 percent opposed it.
The money raised so far — more than $34 million — exceeds the amount raised for any other ballot question in state history, and makes the campaign one of the most expensive in the country this year. The yes side has raised almost $22 million, much of it from out-of-state groups that do not have to identify their individual donors; the no side has raised more than $12 million, most of it from teachers unions.
What has really inflamed the argument is the question of equality, which has persisted since the inception of charter schools here 20 years ago: Do they exacerbate inequality? Or do they ease it?
“This is an issue about social justice,” Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican leader of the yes side, said recently as he campaigned for the measure in Dorchester, a heavily minority section of Boston. “This is an opportunity to give every kid in Massachusetts the same opportunity my kids have.”
But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who has supported school vouchers in the past and had remained aloof from this battle, issued a statement of opposition in September.
“I am very concerned about what this specific proposal means for hundreds of thousands of children across our commonwealth,” Warren wrote, “especially those living in districts with tight budgets where every dime matters. Education is about creating opportunity for all our children, not about leaving many behind.”
Still, one thing is indisputable: The charter schools here — which, like those around the country, operate independently from school committees, are rarely unionized and have more flexibility in matters like hiring, termination, curriculum and length of the school day — have performed well. The urban charter schools, in particular, have produced better academic results than the district schools have.
Unlike other states, Massachusetts has increased its charters gradually; it still has only 78. In districts like New Orleans, they multiplied at a faster clip and have been less successful.
In addition, Massachusetts has no for-profit charter schools, which have been blamed for uneven quality in areas like Detroit, and no online charter schools, which have been controversial in Ohio.
What has further confused voters is how public figures and especially African-American organizations have been lining up.
Most Democrats here, including Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, oppose the measure, while President Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, have supported charter schools. (They have not taken positions on Question 2 despite a misleading mailer and YouTube video from supporters of the yes campaign implying Obama had endorsed it.)
While the Urban League and many black educators support the ballot measure, the NAACP opposes it and has called for a moratorium on charters, saying they worsen segregation.
The opponents’ chief message has been that charter schools drain money from district schools.
“This year alone,” one piece of campaign literature claims, “charter schools will drain more than $400 million that would otherwise stay in neighborhood public schools to help all students.”
Opponents also cast the ballot measure as a goal of “out-of-state billionaires,” including the brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch and members of the Walton family, which controls Wal-Mart. Their real intent, Question 2 opponents say, is to bust teachers unions and privatize public schools.
But supporters of expanding charter schools say the argument that they drain money from public schools is alarmist and misleading. The yes side points to a study by the nonpartisan Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation — the Boston Foundation, which supports charters, financed the study — which concluded that charters do not take more money than their fair share, since financing follows children when they switch schools. This year, the study reported, 3.9 percent of the state’s students attend charter schools, which are receiving 3.9 percent of education money.
Opponents counter that when students leave, public schools still have to pay overhead, teacher salaries and other costs, which can lead to closings.