State board grants waiver to Brockton charter

Local officials opposed New Heights proposal

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

Against the wishes of local school officials, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education granted a waiver Tuesday to a proposed charter school in Brockton, allowing the applicant to continue in the approval process.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester recommended the board approve the waiver for the New Heights Charter School, citing “exceptional” circumstances and saying it would not set a precedent for other charter school applicants.

The board voted 8 to 3 in favor of the waiver that allows the application to move forward, but does not approve the charter school. Board members Mary Ann Stewart, Harneen Chernow, and Pendred Noyce voted against it.

Chernow said granting the waiver would harm the board’s credibility.

“I don’t see how we as a board, at this point, say we are going to waive this particular regulation or statute. Because to me it seems like we are waiving a statute, and I actually didn’t know you could waive statute,” Chernow said before the vote.

Education officials in September dropped New Heights from consideration because Brockton public schools no longer ranked among the lowest 10 percent in the state for performance after spring MCAS scores and a new formula adopted in June by the board elevated the district. The changes the board made to the formula for determining school performance rankings recognize improvement in student growth.

“The board’s vote today allows a high quality charter application to move forward for a fair hearing before the department, the Board, and the Brockton community,” Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said in a statement. “The people of Brockton want, need, and deserve the choices and educational opportunities this school would offer. We are glad the board, the commissioner, and department staff recognized that changing the rules in the middle of the application cycle would have invalidated the application and denied parents the educational choices they seek on a technicality.”

New Heights was disqualified after it began the application process because state law requires the first two Commonwealth Charter schools in any given year be licensed in the bottom 10 percent of school districts. The Brockton charter proposal and another in Fitchburg – two districts that bumped up in performance – were the only ones that made it into the final round of consideration. Officials from the Academy of the Whole Child in the Fitchburg region have withdrawn their request for a waiver.

Board Chair Margaret McKenna voted in favor of the waiver, saying: “We are not trying to change legislation here.”

McKenna described the waiver as an “extremely narrow exception” to a policy that would allow the application to go forward, but was not changing the calculation the board approved in June that incorporates student growth when ranking a school district.

Opponents to the charter school proposal argued the waiver would diminish the work done by Brockton school officials to improve student performance.

Barbara Madeloni, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the waiver flouts state law by granting New Heights an exception to a state statute. Madeloni said a charter school located in Brockton would hurt the local schools and negate strides in student performance made by the district.

“It is fair to require New Heights to play by the rules as Brockton has done for so many years,” she said.

Brockton School Superintendent Kathleen Smith said granting the waiver would “allow people to create loopholes for self-serving interests.”

During the meeting, the board wrangled with the language of the waiver. Some members expressed concerns that exempting the charter applicant from the board’s new regulation would be tampering with state law.

Board member Katherine Craven said it was one thing to waive a regulation, but “if we are attempting to waive something in statute, we have a problem.”

Chester said the waiver would apply strictly to the Brockton application. He added, “It is not setting a precedent.”

Chester said the waiver would only allow the application to be reviewed, and said he is not making any judgments about the strength of the New Heights application. He added he has “tremendous respect” for the work Brockton public school officials have done to improve student performance.

“It is part of the laws of this land to provide parents with choice, and with opportunities,” Chester said.

Before the board voted, Rep. Claire Cronin, a Democrat from Easton, said lawmakers from the region oppose the waiver for the charter school. Brockton schools’ new rankings rendered the applicant ineligible, she said, and granting the waiver “would weaken, rather than strengthen, our public school education system.”

Rep. Michael Brady, a Democrat from Brockton, asked the board not to grant the waiver, saying it would “undermine the importance of the success the district has achieved.”

Brockton City Council President Robert Sullivan also asked the board to reject the waiver, arguing there was no reason within state law to grant it.

“I think, respectfully, this waiver request just isn’t fair; it is just not right,” Sullivan said.

Education Secretary Matthew Malone said the tension between charter schools and traditional public schools stems from the way charter schools are funded by the state.

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“The funding formula puts us on opposing sides,” said Malone, who previously served as Brockton school superintendent. “Because of the funding, we view charters as punishment rather than another tool in our toolbox to meet the needs of kids.”

Malone said he supports the waiver for the Brockton charter applicant, but tried to get the board to postpone a vote, arguing members needed more time to work out the language of the waiver. His motion failed.