Charter battle heats up in New Bedford

Mayor Mitchell says expansion would be devastating to city schools

THINK THE BATTLE over charter schools in Massachusetts is over? Think again.

Voters may have soundly defeated a ballot question two years ago to raise the cap on charters, but there is plenty of room in some communities under the existing cap to add more charter school seats. One of them is New Bedford, where the next big charter battle may play out.

Two charters there are looking to expand. Together they are asking the state to approve more than 1,300 new charter seats. Meanwhile, a third group is applying to open a new charter in the Whaling City.

Mayor Jon Mitchell has come out strongly against the expansion proposals, arguing they would be devastating to city finances and the state of its district schools.

The head of the state charter school association, Tim Nicolette, penned an op-ed last week in the New Bedford Standard-Times in support of the charter growth and the options they give families who are desperate for quality school options. He said New Bedford is the fourth lowest performing school district in the state. “Parents and students deserve better, and they shouldn’t have to wait another generation to get it,” he wrote.

Mitchell joined the Codcast to talk about the charter issue. We reached out to the charter school association to invite Nicolette to take part. He declined.

Mitchell said state and city funds that charter expansion would draw would make it even more difficult to fund the city’s already financially strapped district system, and called the proposals “unreasonable.”

“I want to see kids have the greatest and the broadest opportunities that we can make available for them, but this is at the end of the day a zero sum proposition for cities that are financially constrained,” said Mitchell, noting that New Bedford property tax bills have soared 24 percent in the last five years, while the city has closed one school and one firehouse

As for the capacity to add more charter seats in New Bedford under the existing state cap, he said, “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

But state education officials have generally considered only the strength of a charter school proposal and interest among local families in such a school in weighing charter applications, with the concerns of municipal leaders — who almost always view charters negatively — not figuring prominently in the decision-making. Indeed, the state charter school law vests full power over charter school authorization in the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education because of the natural tension between the publicly-funded, but independently run, schools and officials overseeing district school systems.

Mitchell recently laid out his argument in CommonWealth on the ways the charter school funding system is broken. “I hate to sound pessimistic about it, but there aren’t easy solutions,” he said on the Codcast.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Mitchell is hardly a crusading anti-charter zealot. Indeed, he praises the innovation charters have brought to public education, including longer school days, greater flexibility over curriculum, and school-level autonomy.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any mayor in America who wouldn’t like to see some of those built into their district schools,” he said of the features common in charters. Mitchell said the city has been able to bring some of those reforms to the district in recent contract agreements with the teachers union, and he supported a bill filed in the recent legislative session that would have allowed districts to create “innovation partnership zones” made up of schools within a system that would operate independently of the central district office.

“We do need to look at some of these other governing models,” he said.