Riley throws in towel on New Bedford charter plan  

Turns to backup plan for larger charter school in wake of Beacon Hill roadblocks

FOUR MONTHS AFTER he unveiled a novel proposal for a New Bedford charter school billed as a way to ease the acrimony that has plagued the state’s education sector, Massachusetts education commissioner Jeff Riley pulled the plug on the plan, which had only seemed to trigger a fresh round of the warring he sought to end.

Riley said Friday afternoon that the clock has run out on waiting for the Legislature to approve a compromise worked out with city leaders in New Bedford and the Alma del Mar Charter School that would have authorized a 450-student charter school to serve a defined section of the city. He said he will instead give the go-ahead for a backup plan allowing Alma del Mar to open a larger, 594-seat school serving students across New Bedford.

“Although we have delayed the decision in order to allow time for the home rule legislation to pass, I recognize now that the compromise will not move forward on a timeline that would allow New Bedford families to plan for September. Therefore, Alma del Mar Charter School will proceed with the approved traditional expansion,” Riley said in a statement late Friday afternoon. He said the compromise “sought to address municipal, school district, and charter school concerns in innovative and collaborative ways” that “put the needs of New Bedford students and families first.”

The home rule petition stalled over the last two weeks in the Legislature, where moves by opponents in both the House and Senate delayed efforts to get the bill to the education committee for a hearing. Riley said the bill had to be passed by the end of the month to give time to carry out the school’s neighborhood-based enrollment and coordinate school sign-ups with the New Bedford district.

“We are disappointed by the news that we will be unable to move forward with a local compromise deal that would have given 450 children the opportunity to access a high-quality public school in their neighborhood,” said Will Gardner, executive director of Alma del Mar, in a statement.

Gov. Charlie Baker, speaking earlier Friday before Riley’s announcement, decried the legislative maneuvers to hold up the measure.

“I think it’s a shame and a disappointment for all involved that this one, at this point, is in limbo,” he said. “Where we stand now has put a whole bunch of kids and a ton of families in New Bedford in a really crummy place.”

Though he criticized the roadblocks that dealt what were ultimately fatal blows to the plan, Baker did little publicly to rally support for the measure. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka also held back any public support for the plan – or even for moving it quickly through the process to get a vote up or down from both branches before the clock ran out.

The lack of public support from Beacon Hill leaders may reflect a wariness about the charter issue in the wake of the crushing defeat of a charter expansion ballot initiative in 2016. A number of lawmakers, including four of the six representing New Bedford, either came out against the state-brokered charter compromise or distanced themselves from the debate.

Alma del Mar, which already operates a K-8 school in New Bedford, had applied for charters to open two new campuses serving a total of 1,188 students. New Bedford city officials strongly opposed the applications, which they said would be devastating to the city’s school budget.

Riley then worked with the city’s mayor, Jon Mitchell, and Gardner, the Alma del Mar director, to craft the plan for a smaller school of 450 seats, which would serve as the default school for students in the surrounding neighborhood of New Bedford. Existing state law does not allow for neighborhood-based enrollment at charter schools, which must offer seats citywide and use a lottery to select students if oversubscribed.

The neighborhood-based school would have addressed one frequent criticism of charters — that by drawing students from across a community charter schools don’t allow districts to realize the kind of efficiencies or savings that would come from no longer serving students in a defined area of the city or town.

The plan needed approval from the New Bedford city council and school committee, as well as from the Legislature, which had to sign off on the move to break from existing state law requiring citywide enrollment at charter schools.

In approving the plan in January, the state education board also authorized Riley to implement a backup plan allowing Alma del Mar to open a conventional charter school with 594 students if the neighborhood charter was not approved.

New Bedford’s city council and school committee signed off on the proposal, but it hit a dead-end in the Legislature, where delay tactics in the House and Senate meant the bill had not even reached the education committee by today’s deadline set by Riley.

Mitchell, in a statement Friday night, said the city regarded the plan as “an outside-the-box way of avoiding the blunt instrument of the state’s charter school law, which heavily favors charter school expansion without regard to the financial implications to the host municipality or the progress of its district schools.” He expressed appreciation to Riley and the two local state representatives who sponsored the home rule petition, but said it is “deeply disappointing that other state representatives – some of whom voted for the same charter school law – acted contrary to the city’s clear interests by opposing the bill.”

His comment appeared to be a swipe at Rep. Antonio Cabral, one of three New Bedford state reps who opposed the measured. Cabral was first elected in 1990, so he was office when the 1993 Education Reform Act first authorizing charter schools was passed.

Riley was widely praised for his work as the state-appointed receiver of the troubled Lawrence school district. When he was tapped in January 2018 to helm the state education department, Riley was viewed as a pragmatic problem solver. “I think he’ll build consensus. I think collaboration will be different than it’s been in the recent past,” Tom Scott, director of the state superintendents’ association, said at the time.

The New Bedford plan represented the biggest test to date of Riley’s vow to lead the department on new course, one that strives to heal the divisions that have fractured the education sector, from the role of testing to the place of charter schools. Today’s outcome doesn’t augur well for that mission to find common ground.

“It’s deeply disappointing that a moderate course of action on charter schools wasn’t applauded and embraced,” said former state education secretary Paul Reville. “It’s a huge missed opportunity for the Commonwealth and for New Bedford — and the Legislature has to take responsibility for this.”

The New Bedford proposal met with fierce opposition from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which filed a lawsuit to try to block it and urged lawmakers not to pass the home rule petition. In a letter earlier this month sent to all members of the Legislature, the union’s president and vice president accused the Baker administration of a “strong-armed attempt” to impose the plan on community members opposed to it. The union leaders said city officials bowed to an “extortionate proposal” by agreeing to the compromise.

When Riley unveiled the plan in January, he hailed it as a promising way to move beyond the factional battles in education policy. “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 then.

“This could be a real breakthrough moment not just for New Bedford but for the state,” said Paul Sagan, the state education board chairman at the time.

That, it turns out, was part of the challenge the proposal faced. While state education leaders thought it might be a model worth trying elsewhere, the Mass. Teachers Association said that was precisely why they were so dead set against letting New Bedford proceed with the idea.

The union waged a high-profile battle to defeat a 2016 ballot question that would have raised the state cap on charter schools, and it has relentlessly attacked charter schools as part of an effort to “privatize” public education. Charters are publicly-funded, but operate independent of district school systems with an appointed board of trustees and a teaching staff that is generally not unionized. Riley’s plan would have blurred some of the line distinguishing charters from district schools by integrating enrollment at the Alma del Mar campus with the district’s system.

MTA president Merrie Najimy said in a statement that the union joined a coalition with New Bedford residents to oppose the proposal “because of the broader implications raised in this deal.”

Ricardo Rosa, co-chair of the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools, which also joined the MTA in the lawsuit against the plan, said the proposed was “based on coercion, which is no way to implement education policy.”

Charter supporters point to research studies from Stanford University as well as Harvard and MIT that have shown Massachusetts to have a particularly high achieving charter school sector, with the students at the schools generally outperforming their district peers on math and English assessments. In New Bedford, students at the existing Alma del Mar charter school outscore the district’s students on MCAS English proficiency by 17 percentage points and on math by 24 points.

Critics, led by teachers unions, have focused on financing, arguing that charter schools have hurt district schools because local and state education funding follows students if they enroll in charters.

Baker said Riley’s proposal was a creative effort to bring the sides together and said he could not recall a home rule petition ever held up in this way.

“I  think the arrangement that was made between the city of New Bedford, which the school committee, the city council, and the mayor all signed off on, with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, was a very innovative and city-focused approach to solve that particular concern the city had,” said Baker. “Home rule petitions as a general matter are considered to be things state government is supposed to support when local communities seek waivers from standard operating procedure.”

Baker said he’s been involved in state and local government for 30 years, “and over that period time I can’t ever remember a home rule petition that had that kind of support from the city council, the school committee, and the mayor ever getting treated the way this one’s been treated.”

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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.

Reville, the former education secretary, said the inability to end what he calls the “charter wars” is holding back the state’s progress in education.

“It just once again reminds me that we’re a field divided against ourselves,” Reville said of the New Bedford showdown. “And until we find a way to pull together, we’re not going to find a way to restore Massachusetts to its historical leadership position.”