A tangled web in Gloucester
The mess that has been made over the handling of a proposed charter school in Gloucester offers a cautionary tale of what happens when a process that is supposed to be unimpeachable in its fealty to established standards seems to get hijacked by political agendas. The lessons are ones that state leaders would be particularly wise to heed as Massachusetts prepares to approve scores of new charter schools under the education reform legislation approved yesterday and now awaiting Gov. Deval Patrick’s signature.
It was nearly a year ago that the state board of elementary and secondary education voted to approve an arts-oriented charter school in Gloucester, a move that was very unpopular with local legislators and some parents, who complained about the funding hit the Gloucester district schools would have to absorb. The February 2009 vote came on the recommendation of state education commissioner Mitchell Chester, but he had overruled his department’s own charter school office, whose comprehensive review of the Gloucester proposal concluded the application did not meet state standards and should be rejected.
The pencils and erasers really hit the fan, though, in September, when a public records request by the Gloucester Times turned up an email sent to Chester by state education secretary Paul Reville just days before the February vote, in which Reville urges Chester to recommend approval of the Gloucester application because it will aid the Patrick administration’s broader education agenda.
“Can you see your way clear to supporting it?” Reville wrote of the Gloucester proposal. “It really is a matter of positioning ourselves so that we can be viable to implement the rest of our agenda. It’s a tough but I think necessary pill to swallow.”
The email ignited a firestorm by suggesting that the school’s approval was politically wired and not based on the merits of the proposal. Reville has said his comments were taken out of context, and Chester says the e-missive did not influence his decision to recommend approval of the charter. Their claims have been met with considerable skepticism, not least because this represents the first time a state education commissioner has ever recommended approval of a charter over the objections of his own department’s experts.
The fallout has been unending, and you need a scorecard at this point to keep track of who has been thrown under the bus by whom in what has been a thus far futile effort to get the whole thing to just go away.
With the cloud cast over the original approval process, the idea of a strictly merit-based review of charter proposals was the first victim. Then Patrick, apparently feeling the heat from charter foes and Gloucester residents, twice urged the state board of education to reconsider the Gloucester vote, undermining his own education secretary, who was maintaining that the approval had been sound and proper. What’s more, Patrick’s request came despite the clear message from the board that there were no legal grounds for revoking or reconsidering the approval of a duly granted charter.
A report issued last week by state Inspector General Gregory Sullivan suggested that Chester exceeded his authority in overruling his own staff’s recommendation. Chester has vigorously rejected that claim, insisting he has final authority to make a recommendation to the board. Nonetheless, on the day the IG’s report was released, Reville said the Patrick administration supported an amendment to the pending ed reform bill (which ultimately failed) that would have revoked the charter outright. With that, Reville and Patrick seem to have tossed Chester and the board of education — who continue to defend the process by which the school was approved — under the bus.
Finally, all but ignored in the ongoing wrangling are the folks who are busy trying to plan the opening of a brand new school at the same time that various state and local leaders are trying to pull the rug out from under them. The group planning to open the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School may — or may not — have a sound plan for a quality school. But they’re being whipsawed by a controversy that is in no way of their making.
This isn’t how it is supposed to go.
That “no excuses” ethos is also a good way of describing how the charter school approval process is supposed to work. Charter applications are supposed to be evaluated with brutal honesty. That means a degree of accountability often absent in district systems, with good charter school proposals approved and bad ones, however well intentioned, turned down. (The same rules are supposed to apply once charters are up and running, with those that are successfully raising student achievement rewarded with renewal after each five-year charter cycle, while those failing to deliver on their promise are shut down.)This model of strict merit-based review of charter proposals seems to have run off the rails in Gloucester. Jamie Gass, director of the Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform, says by “putting its thumb on the scale” the administration “has cast pretty serious doubts on the integrity of the charter approval process.” That is the truly tough pill to swallow, given that Massachusetts was once recognized as a national model when it came to the rigor of our charter authorizing system. That was just one of many elements of the 1993 education reform law that helped catapult the state to first place in many measures of student achievement.
Patrick and Reville have set out a worthy reform agenda, and the administration scored a huge victory with yesterday’s bill doubling the number of Massachusetts charter schools and expanding the power of state and local leaders to intervene in underperforming district schools. With it, the state is poised to recapture some of the reputation it earned with the 1993 law as a national leader in education reform efforts. The best way to do that, however, is to stay true to the practices that got us where we are today.