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 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.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.