Charter school proposal roils South Coast
Plan for school serving New Bedford and Fall River with ‘early college’ focus draws praise – and pickets
IT’S BEEN MORE than five years since the debate over charter schools in Massachusetts came front and center in the form of a high-profile ballot question that would have raised the state cap on the independently run, but publicly funded, schools. But the decisive rejection of the measure by voters in 2016 has hardly settled the charter school wars. Instead, the fight has just shifted from statewide showdown to local brawls over individual charter school proposals.
The latest battleground: An increasingly acrimonious debate over a proposed grade 6-12 charter school serving students in New Bedford and Fall River. In recent days, opponents have taken the fight to the streets, picketing a local bank whose president was slated to serve on the charter school board of directors and showing up unannounced at the law office of an attorney who had submitted a letter to the state education department in support of the charter application.
Depending on which side you ask, the moves are either vigorous displays of democracy in action or strong-armed intimidation tactics fueled by teachers’ unions, aimed at blocking a school with an innovative plan to address low educational attainment rates that have long held the region back.
At the center of the clash is a proposal to open a charter school serving 735 students in grades 6-12 that would offer an “early college” curriculum in STEM fields. Early college high schools, in which students begin taking college-level courses in later grades, have gained popularity across the country in recent years. The programs, through which students can gain enough credits to graduate from high school with a two-year college associate’s degree at no cost, are seen as particularly effective among low-income students and other populations with low rates of higher education enrollment and completion.
“Everybody’s working really hard in the two communities to improve outcomes for kids,” said Meg Mayo-Brown, a former superintendent of the Fall River schools who would serve as executive director of the new Innovators Charter School if it is approved by the state education department. “Yet it’s not translating into college enrollment and persistence. Early college, wall to wall, makes so much sense to me,” she said, referring to the charter school proposal to have all its students enrolled in early college programming.
Studies in other states of early college programs have shown that it doubles college completion rates for low-income students and students of color. In Massachusetts, which has boosted early college funding in recent years, early results show that it leads to higher enrollment in college following high school and 53 percent greater persistence into the second year of college compared with similar students not enrolled in early college during high school.
The Innovators Charter School proposal is modeled on a similar “wall to wall” early college school, New Heights Charter School in Brockton. Last May, the grade 6-12 school graduated its first class of students, more than half of whom also received a two-year associate’s college degree.
“I’m very excited about this project – almost as much as any project I’ve ever been involved in,” said Jack Sbrega, the former president of Bristol Community College, who would chair the new charter school board of trustees. “There will be a revolution in the country when parents realize the opportunities available to their children in early college.”
But the charter school proposal has faced a blizzard of opposition – from the mayors of New Bedford and Fall River, other local elected officials, and a group called New Bedford Coalition to Save our Schools, which includes teachers union activists and local parents.
Opponents have offered many of the same criticisms frequently leveled at charter schools – led by the charge that they siphon money away from public school districts and put them in the hands of charter school operators not answerable to an elected local school board. Per pupil funding for public schools in Massachusetts “follows the child,” which means charter schools receive whatever the local level of school spending is.
“It’s terrible policy for a city that doesn’t have a whole lot of play in the joints, financially speaking,” said Mitchell. He said at full enrollment following its proposed seven-year ramp-up, the Innovators Charter School would cost New Bedford more than $9 million in education funding.
Mitchell and other critics have also questioned the need for a charter school with an early college focus since Fall River’s Durfee High School recently launched an early college program and New Bedford High School is in the process of seeking approval to start one.
“This school is not offering anything innovative and new. It’s just duplicating existing programs,” said New Bedford resident Cynthia Roy, chair of New Bedford Coalition to Save our Schools and a teacher at Bristol-Plymouth Regional Technical School.
Another leader of the anti-charter coalition, Ricardo Rosa, a New Bedford parent and director of the center for policy and practice at the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said charter schools only make it harder for struggling districts like New Bedford to deliver the education their students deserve. “We think that what we need to do is to fully invest in our public school system,” he said.
Mayo-Brown dismissed the suggestion that Innovators Charter School would duplicate efforts already underway, pointing to its plan to enroll all students in early college programming and its focus on developing math skills among 6th to 8th grade students needed to succeed in college-level STEM courses during the high school grades.
State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley is expected to issue his recommendation as soon as this week on whether he thinks the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education should approve the charter school proposal.
With that decision approaching, opponents have dialed up the pressure on those backing the school. In December, members of the anti-charter coalition picketed a New Bedford branch of BayCoast Bank, whose CEO, Nicholas Christ, was slated to serve as vice chairman of the charter school board. Two other bank employees were also to serve on the board.
Christ earlier took some heat from Mitchell, who voiced his feelings about the charter school when Christ called the mayor in September to tell him about his plan to serve on its board.
“I told him it’s a terrible idea,” Mitchell said of their conversation.
Christ has been a major civic player in the region, committing $2 million of the bank’s philanthropic giving toward various education initiatives since 2017. Two weeks ago, however, he announced that he was leaving the charter school board and that the two other BayCoast Bank employees who were to serve on the board would step down as well.
In an op-ed explaining the move in the New Bedford Standard-Times, Christ said there is broad support in the area for various early college efforts. “We recognize, however, that our involvement with the plan for Innovators Charter School has become a distraction to that consensus,” he wrote.
Christ declined to discuss the decision to pull back from involvement with the school proposal.
The pressure from anti-charter activists has not been limited to would-be members of the school’s board of trustees. The New Bedford Coalition to Save our Schools has also targeted local business leaders and community members who submitted letters to the state in support of the charter proposal, calling them to withdraw their backing for the school. The coalition’s Facebook page listed several of the businesses and their phone numbers, urging people to call to try to get them to abandon their support. “Maybe they need a little encouragement from you,” it says.
In at least one case, members of the coalition delivered the message in person. Along with flooding his office with phone calls, half a dozen people showed up unannounced one day last month at the New Bedford office of a local attorney, Randall Weeks, one of those who had submitted a letter of support for the charter school.
“I’ve withdrawn my letter of recommendation,” Weeks said in a brief phone conversation, declining to discuss the issue further.
Doug Glassman, president of the South Coast Business Alliance, said his group might do the same. “It looks like it’s become a bigger to-do in the city. We may not want to be involved in it any more,” said Glassman, who owns a property-damage restoration company.
Supporters of the school say opponents have resorted to heavy-handed tactics in their effort to sink the proposal. Jim Mathes, who served for more than two decades as head of the New Bedford Chamber of Commerce and now directs a community service center in the city’s low-income South End neighborhood, decried the picketing and pressure put on BayCoast Bank after all its support of education initiatives in the region. “Clearly the intent was intimidation – and it worked,” said Mathes, a member of the proposed charter school board of trustees. “There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing on issues. There’s a lot that can be wrong with the behavior that goes with disagreeing.”
Ed Lambert, a former Fall River mayor who now heads the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said the tactics are “a sign of the aggressive tone that, unfortunately, teachers union leadership has adopted over the last several years. It’s hard to have these policy debates when people are attacked for stepping into the public sphere,” he said.
Mathes, who said he’s supported Mitchell in past elections, said the charter school battles have become so toxic that at a December public hearing in New Bedford on the Innovators Charter School proposal, the mayor “walked right past me as if I didn’t exist.”
Rosa, the New Bedford parent and Mass. Teachers Association official, said there was nothing wrong with picketing at the bank or showing up at offices of those supporting the school proposal. “Democracy gets loud,” he said. “Frederick Douglass, who lived in New Bedford, said power concedes nothing without a demand. There’s a need to have that kind of pressure from below.”
Mitchell said BayCoast bank officials and those writing letters of support for the school put themselves into the public debate over the proposal. “Nick Christ is a public figure in Southeastern Massachusetts and he put the good will of his bank publicly behind this proposal,” said Mitchell. As for the picketing of the bank, Mitchell said, “I have no problem with that. Welcome to my world.”
In the wake of the board resignations by Christ and his two fellow BayCoast Bank employees, one of whom was to serve as the school treasurer, the full-court press by opponents has turned to questions about the stability of the school’s governance.
“Their ability to manage the finances of the school is in question,” said Cynthia Roy, the anti-charter coalition chair, arguing that the board resignations should be grounds for the state to reject an application that she said is now “in shambles.”
Mayo-Brown, the proposed charter school director, said the governance structure of the school is solid, and that the board voted to bring on an interim treasurer who formerly served as chief financial officer for the Fall River public school system.
Along with raising new questions about the charter school’s board, opponents say the proposal should never have gotten out of the starting gate based on its leaders’ track record.
While voters overwhelmingly rejected the 2016 ballot question to raise the cap on charter schools, there remains room for new schools to be approved under the existing charter school cap. The law limits the number of charter school seats to account for no more than 9 percent of overall net public school spending in any one community. In an effort to promote more school options in low-performing districts, however, the law allows additional charter seats in communities already at the 9 percent benchmark – claiming up to 18 percent of local school spending – if their school district ranks in the bottom 10 percent of districts statewide.
Those conditions apply in Fall River and New Bedford. However, state regulations require any new charter schools under that provision to be run by at least two “proven providers” with a demonstrated record of leading schools for at least three years where student MCAS achievement and growth scores were at least similar to statewide averages.
Opponents say scores in the Fall River system during Mayo-Brown’s eight years as superintendent were far below state averages. They say Fran Roy, who is currently the state-appointed receiver overseeing a New Bedford elementary school and who would serve as the charter school’s chief officer for learning and development, also fails to meet the “proven provider” requirements.
In September, Riley, the state education commissioner, ruled that Mayo-Brown and Roy met the “proven provider” standard. His letter giving the proposal the green light to move forward included a set of charts showing not only Fall River MCAS data from the years Mayo-Brown oversaw its schools but more recent MCAS from Barnstable, where she has served as superintendent since 2017.
The state education department appears to have used more recent student results from the Cape Cod district in determining that Mayo-Brown meets the proven provider requirement. It’s not clear what data the state used to assess Roy’s record. The department declined requests to have someone explain the basis for its determination about the two proposed school leaders.
“At a minimum, I would hope they table a decision,” Mitchell said of the impending state action on the proposal.Mathes, the former chamber of commerce leader, said opponents are so determined to oppose any new charter school that they often lose sight of the actual aims of a proposed school. “We have really poor educational attainment in New Bedford and Fall River and this could help get more kids through school and on to college and through college,” he said.
He said he doesn’t view the New Bedford and Fall River schools “in a negative light” and applauded recent gains at New Bedford High School. “That said, there are hundreds of students who go into that building who would benefit from this option,” Mathes said of the proposed charter school. Although the debate over charter schools is often cast as a zero-sum battle over funding, he insisted, “it’s not an either/or.”