New Bedford charter school plan on the ropes
Home rule debate revives statewide education battle
A PLAN TOUTED by state education leaders as a breakthrough compromise aimed at healing the rift between district and charter schools has instead inflamed passions on Beacon Hill where the proposal is faltering and has reignited one of the state’s most enduring education battles.
The plan would put in place a novel structure for a new charter school in New Bedford that would enroll students from a neighborhood zone and serve as the default public school for families in that area. Conventional charter schools enroll students from across a community and don’t coordinate with district systems.
The proposal has the backing of New Bedford city leaders, but requires approval by the Legislature, where prospects look decidedly more shaky after a procedural move by opponents on Thursday to bottle up the bill in a House committee.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell lashed out at opponents of the plan, including one lawmaker from his own city who he said was doing the bidding of the state’s main teachers union by blocking a measure that would help the city and only affects its school district. But critics say the bill would set a precedent for major change in charter school policy and should only be considered as a full-blown bill amending state charter school law.
Rather than authorize Alma del Mar Charter School to open a standard citywide charter school, Riley proposed that Alma open a school that would serve 450 students in a defined neighborhood of the city, with its enrollment integrated with the district school system. The state education board approved the plan but also authorized Alma del Mar to open a larger, conventional charter school serving 594 students if the plan with the New Bedford system did not work out.
The compromise plan for a smaller neighborhood-based charter school, which Riley hatched with Mitchell and the director of Alma del Mar, won the backing of the New Bedford city council and school committee, but now needs approval by the Legislature in order to deviate from state law requiring charter seats to be filled through a citywide lottery
Funding for students follows them if they enroll in charter schools, and Mitchell has long voiced concern over the impact charters were having on the New Bedford district’s finances. He said a neighborhood-based charter school would have far less impact on the city budget than the backup proposal for a larger citywide charter school, estimating the 594-seat school could end up costing the city $4 million more per year than the neighborhood model. He also touted it as a fairer approach that will put the new school on a more even footing with the district. Citywide charter lotteries, he said, tend to draw students from better-off families across a community.
Riley hailed the plan as a hopeful moment for the state’s education sector.
“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,” he said in January when announcing the plan.
But any early signs of comity have given way to the acrimony that has long accompanied discussions involving charter schools.
State Reps. Chris Markey and Paul Schmid, who each represent parts of the city, are cosponsoring the measure, which was filed on May 2, but the three other members of the city’s House delegation, Reps. Antonio Cabral, Christopher Hendricks, and William Straus are opposing the bill. State Sen. Mark Montigny, whose district includes all of New Bedford, said he hadn’t developed a stand on the issue when asked this week.
“If they want to introduce a different kind of model of charter schools, they should do it through general legislation,” said Cabral.
Cabral argues that the bill would reshape the approach to charter schools statewide, a point on which there seems to be broad agreement. Whether that’s a good thing or not is where the conflict emerges.
“This could be a real breakthrough moment not just for New Bedford but for the state,” said Paul Sagan, then chairman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, at the January board meeting where the plan was unveiled. Sagan, who stepped down from his post in March, suggested the plan could be a model that breaks down the barrier that has pitted charter and district schools against each other.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has a decidedly different view. The union has strongly opposed the plan, calling it an “extortionate proposal” forced on New Bedford in a letter sent earlier this month to all legislators. “If passed, this model will undoubtedly be used across the state to the detriment of public school districts,” said the letter.
On Thursday, an effort to advance the bill by moving it from the House Rules Committee where it was first assigned to the Joint Committee on Education was blocked when Rep. James Hawkins of Attleboro questioned whether a quorum was present in the lightly-attended House session, effectively killing consideration of the bill. Markey, the bill sponsor, said Cabral had been huddling with Hawkins and other lawmakers prior to the quorum call
The move set off bitter charges from backers of the proposal.
Mitchell accused Cabral of orchestrating the efforts to kill the measure at the expense of families in his New Bedford district.
“It’s astonishing to me that he would oppose a measure that would benefit New Bedford school children and only New Bedford school children, so that he could do the bidding of the statewide teachers union,” said Mitchell.
Markey, meanwhile, denounced the move by Hawkins as a sharp departure from House protocol. “I’m the bill sponsor. This individual never approached me, never spoke to me about it,” he said of Hawkins. “I’ve never seen an objection to a bill being removed from Rules to another committee.”
Cabral’s office said he was not available late Thursday.
Hawkins did not return a message on Thursday afternoon.
Markey said he hasn’t given up and will move to have the bill put on the agenda for the next formal session of the House next Wednesday.
The Mass. Teachers Association led the opposition to the 2016 ballot question that would have raised the cap on charter schools in the state, and it has long railed against charter schools, which are publicly funded, but operate independent of district schools, usually with non-union teachers.
The union’s sway on the New Bedford proposal became clear in one striking way soon after it was unveiled.
Hendricks, one of the other New Bedford reps opposing the petition, voiced support for the new charter school model when it was unveiled in January. “The compromise reached between New Bedford and Alma is very encouraging,” he said in statement released by the state education department. “I am excited that Alma will be able to grow at the new location with children from the immediate neighborhood,” he said, praising Mitchell and Alma del Mar’s director, Will Gardner, for working together on the deal.
Four days later, however, Hendricks’s office issued a press release saying he opposed the proposal.
“That was before I knew the MTA did not like this agreement,” Hendricks said in an interview this week. “It clearly was one of my first political mistakes. I’ll just leave it at that,” said the freshman lawmaker, who had been sworn in less than two weeks before issuing his initial statement of support in January.
Riley, too, seems to see the union’s clout at play.
“I think people believe this is a decent compromise for the city of New Bedford,” he said. “There may be special interest groups that don’t want the compromise to go through.”
Straus, who represents an area of New Bedford that a neighborhood-based charter school would draw from, said the proposal has been part of a “flawed process” from the start.
“How we operate charter schools in Massachusetts and under what model is something that isn’t going to be determined ultimately by a local agreement in one municipality, but should and has to involve everyone, meaning the entire Legislature,” he said.
Given the complexities of enrollment systems, Riley said the Legislature must act by the end of the month on the proposal or the idea will have to be abandoned with Alma del Mar given the go-ahead to implement the backup plan for a larger citywide charter school.
It’s a deadline that may already be out of reach.
“There isn’t one person I know of who thinks this bill would be on the governor’s desk by June 1,” said Straus.
For his part, Gardner, the Alma del Mar charter school director, said he remains “eager to move forward with this compromise deal, which is certainly a win for everyone. At the same time, we are prepared to open a lottery-based Commonwealth charter school as originally planned.”
Former state education secretary Paul Reville said it will be a missed opportunity if the proposal dies.“I’m really disappointed at what seems to be shaping up,” Reville said. “I think the commissioner had come up with a constructive, positive solution to address the differences between the factions, and it included, I think, some promising features of experimenting with what a neighborhood charter school might look like. It’s very disappointing that this may be another case where the adversarial nature of our disagreements over charter schools has gotten in the way of effective education policy and innovation in the Commonwealth.”
Andy Metzger contributed to this report.