New Bedford’s charter school battle

Expansion proposal roils the Whaling City

Nearly two years ago, voters weighed in on a contentious ballot question over charter school expansion in the state. But the battle over the independently run, but publicly funded, schools hardly ended there.

Ground zero for the latest showdown: New Bedford, where the K-8 Alma del Mar Charter School is hoping to expand by adding two more K-8 schools, enrolling an additional 1,188 students. Plenty of cities, including New Bedford, have room under the existing state cap to add more charter seats.

But the Alma del Mar proposal is meeting with stiff resistance from the city’s mayor, Jon Mitchell, who says the expansion would have a devastating effect on the city’s finances. Mitchell wrote about the effect of charters on district finances in July and he made the case against expansion last month on The Codcast, calling the plan “unreasonable” and pointing to the city’s already challenged fiscal picture.

Today, charter supporters Jim Stergios and Charlie Chieppo of the Pioneer Institute weigh in with a commentary piece decrying the opposition from Mitchell and a New Bedford city councilor.

“If you wonder where children fall in the hierarchy of priorities for some elected officials, take a look at New Bedford, where Mayor Jon Mitchell and City Councilor Hugh Dunn are apoplectic about a highly successful charter public school’s expansion plans,” they write.

Stergios and Chieppo say Alma del Mar students not only outperform their district peers in New Bedford, but have higher achievement scores than students in surrounding suburbs as well. They also look to knock down anti-charter arguments that the school benefits from enrolling fewer high-needs kids, saying the percentage of Alma del Mar students with special needs is similar to that in the New Bedford schools.

With more than 80 percent of New Bedford school spending coming from state aid, they also dispute the idea that more charter students are a significant drain on city finances.

The highly-charged expansion debate will land soon in Malden, at the offices of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, where new education commissioner Jeff Riley and members of the state education board are expected to take up the proposal next month.

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” Mitchell said of the room to add charter seats in New Bedford under the state cap. But local opposition and the impact on a district school system have generally not been grounds to turn down an otherwise strong charter application in a community where there appears to be demand for such seats. (Stergios and Chieppo write that there are 500 students on the Alma del Mar waitlist.)

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.

In the never-ending debate over charter schools, two years ago all eyes were on the statewide ballot question vote. Next month, they’ll be focused on Malden.

–MICHAEL JONAS