New Bedford charter school at center of 2019 battle poised to hit enrollment target
Alma del Mar nears full enrollment 3 years after collapse of compromise proposal city leaders said would save $4 million
THREE YEARS AFTER a proposed compromise plan for expansion of a New Bedford charter school collapsed in the face of opposition from teachers unions and their legislative allies, the school is on track to complete its enrollment ramp-up this fall under a larger expansion that loomed as the backup plan.
It’s a development that city leaders say is costing New Bedford’s district school system millions of dollars more than would have been the case under the plan that fell through, which they supported. But charter school opponents, who often charge that the publicly funded but independently operated schools are a drain on district school finances, say they have no regrets about working to scuttle the deal. They maintain that the terms of the more limited expansion plan would have set a dangerous precedent, regardless of any savings it might have brought to the city’s school system.
The saga began in January 2019, when state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley unveiled an unusual proposal in response to an acrimonious battle over a proposed expansion by Alma del Mar Charter School, which opened its first school in New Bedford in 2011. Rather than approve Alma del Mar’s application to add nearly 1,200 seats at two new campuses in the city, Riley worked out a plan with the school’s founder, Will Gardner, and New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell that would allow a much smaller expansion of 450 seats.
But instead of allowing the school to enroll students from across the city, as called for in the state’s charter school law, the plan called for Alma to open a new K-8 school that would serve as the neighborhood public school for a defined section of New Bedford where it would open.
Public funding of education in Massachusetts “follows the student,” with charter schools receiving whatever the local district per pupil spending is for each student they enroll. But when a few students from each district classroom leave for a charter, charter critics say it’s difficult to achieve cost savings by cutting back on the number of teachers and classrooms, even as a chunk of the per pupil funding that schools operate with – a large share of which comes from the state in poorer communities like New Bedford – leaves the district and “follows” students to the new charter school.
By having the new charter school serve as the default assignment for all students in a specified area of the city, the plan also addressed another criticism often leveled by charter school opponents – that they draw easier to teach students from more engaged families who take the initiative to apply to a charter school.
Charter schools, which generally operate without a unionized teaching staff and enjoy broad autonomy over the length and structure of the school day and year, have been the flash point for pitched battles in recent years. Proponents argue that they offer a promising alternative for families to district schools struggling with low student achievement – New Bedford ranks as the fourth lowest performing district in the state. Meanwhile, teachers unions and municipal officials have led the charge against them, saying they divert funding badly needed for district schools.
When Riley announced the proposed compromise involving Alma del Mar, he portrayed it as an effort to bridge the divide over charter schools.
“In a time of great polarization, it’s heartening to see folks come together and work on behalf of who matters most, I hope, to all of us, which is our students,” Riley said at the January 2019 meeting of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education where the plan was rolled out.
Because the proposal deviates from the citywide enrollment system set forth in the 1993 education reform law that authorized the creation of charter schools, it needed the approval of the Legislature through a home-rule petition. That’s where the plan hit the skids.
Mitchell, who opposed the original Alma expansion plan and has been a vocal critic of other charter school proposals in New Bedford, hailed the compromise as the far better choice for the city. “This is a fairer way to do charter schools — fairer to cities, fairer to taxpayers, and fairer to students in district schools,” he said at the time.
Mitchell said that between its smaller size and the efficiencies made possible by the neighborhood-based enrollment plan, the compromise plan would cost New Bedford about $4 million annually in education funding compared to $8 million for the 594-seat fallback option. Though his first choice would have been no charter expansion in New Bedford at all, that wasn’t an option, Mitchell emphasized to opponents of the compromise, pointing out that state law gives full power over authorizing new charter schools to the state education department, with no say for local officials.
At the state board of education meeting where Riley presented the plan, Paul Sagan, the chair of the board at that time, suggested it could represent a promising new model.
“This could be a real breakthrough moment, not just for New Bedford but for the state,” Sagan said.
That was exactly what opponents of the plan feared.
Teachers unions, worried that the state would look to impose the model elsewhere, blurring the line between district school systems and charters, mounted an all-out blitz against the plan. The Massachusetts Teachers Association filed suit to try to block the plan, and its leaders urged the Legislature not to pass the home-rule petition sanctioning the new approach to charter enrollment, calling it an “extortionate proposal.”
The New Bedford school committee and city council signed off on the home-rule, but legislative opponents, including several members of the New Bedford delegation, stalled the proposal from coming to a vote on Beacon Hill. Four months after it was announced, Riley pulled the plug on the plan and gave the go-ahead for the larger, 594-seat school.
At the time, Gov. Charlie Baker called the delay maneuvers on Beacon Hill “a shame and a disappointment,” but he had done little publicly to press for the compromise plan.
Three years later, on track with its enrollment plan of adding several new grades each year, Alma del Mar is poised to reach full capacity this fall at its new Frederick Douglass campus, a $23 million school in the North End of New Bedford.
“We’re fully enrolled,” said Gardner, the school founder following the recent lottery held to allocate the remaining seats at the new Alma campus. Though he lamented the failure of the compromise plan to win approval, Gardner said it also means being able to enroll more students. “We are pleased to be able to increase our impact by serving more kids and families,” he said.
New Bedford officials say their estimate that the 594-seat charter would cost the district roughly $4 million more than the 450-seat neighborhood-based plan has largely been borne out. “It’s certainly a missed opportunity,” said Andrew O’Leary, the school district’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations.
“The school is costing us more than it would have had our proposal been passed by the Legislature,” said Mitchell. “This is money that we could have used in a number of other places.”
State Rep. Chris Hendricks, one of the New Bedford lawmakers who opposed the compromise plan, wrote a lengthy op-ed at the time laying out arguments against the neighborhood-based enrollment proposal. He questioned many aspects of the plan and the projected savings, pointing to details that he said would have allowed students outside the neighborhood zone to attend the new charter school. He also questioned whether Alma would even draw enough families to be able to fill its allotted seats under the larger expansion Riley threatened, given “all the progress our public schools have been making.”
Alma’s enrollment lottery for the upcoming school year had 787 students apply with just 188 new seats in kindergarten and sixth grade available at the Frederick Douglass campus.
Hendricks did not return a call and email asking about the debate over Alma’s expansion.Ricardo Rosa, who was co-chair of the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools, which worked with the Mass. Teachers Association to oppose the compromise plan, said he has “no regrets whatsoever” about working to kill the plan, despite New Bedford officials’ claims that it is now costing the district millions of dollars. “Had it gone through, it would have been catastrophic, not only for the city, but for the state,” he said of the plan to integrate Alma’s enrollment system with that of the district schools.
“The home-rule petition would have been seized on in multiple cities,” said Rosa, who now works as director of the Center for Education Policy and Practice at the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “This is a part of a bigger struggle that speaks to the privatization of public goods across the board.”