Charter politics takes precedence over New Bedford students

Teachers union moves to new level of hypocrisy, obstructionism

JUST DAYS BEFORE the end of the school year, the future of hundreds of New Bedford families has been thrown into chaos as the Massachusetts Teachers Association pulled out all the stops to kill a community-driven home rule petition to move forward with the already-approved expansion of Alma del Mar Charter Public School.

And while the MTA moves to a new level of hypocrisy and obstructionism, their surrogates have the audacity to talk about morality, as New Bedford resident Ricardo Rosa did in a recent CommonWealth piece attacking the Alma proposal.

The plan for a new 450-student Alma del Mar campus involved an innovative new approach. Rather than draw students from a citywide lottery and operate completely apart from the New Bedford district system, the new school was to serve as the default school for students in a defined are of the city, with enrollment coordinated with the district school system office. City officials said the proposal was preferable to the alternative plan state officials held out as the backup plan: A 594-student charter school that would use the traditional citywide enrollment system.

A home rule petition to allow for a neighborhood-based charter school needed final approval from the state Legislature. The home rule petition, the result of months of collaboration and compromise in the city of New Bedford, made clear the need to push past the tired political games and put the educational well-being of children first.

Parents, families, the school committee, charter school leaders, the city council, the mayor, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and our elected officials came together to create a plan that put the children of New Bedford before narrow political interests.

A compromise. As a community. A home rule petition. The epitome of local voice.

But now the deal is dead thanks to a hardball procedural move to block a community-driven home rule petition by state representative and former MTA staffer James Hawkins and state senator Pat Jehlen from Somerville (whose husband is a former National Education Association staffer).

Yes, you read that right. The two individuals who blocked this bill were once literally — and by association — on the teachers union payroll. They also don’t represent New Bedford. Instead of having that collaboration and compromise celebrated by the Legislature, politicians who live 50 miles away from New Bedford have indulged the MTA temper tantrum and allowed the union to hijack the process.

While the leadership of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and its union-funded “coalition” fronted by Rosa may be celebrating, the situation has brought heartbreak to the children and families of New Bedford — a community that will now scramble to deal with reassigning children to other schools and force others to attend a failing school in receivership.

To be clear: The city of New Bedford is currently below the charter public school cap. The 2016 ballot question about whether to expand charter public schools did not change our current system of approving charter schools, nor did it ban charter schools as a public education option for families in the Commonwealth.

The MTA would love to make an almost three-year-old ballot question the justification for every political issue in education — from their quest for irresponsible trickle-down, blank check education funding to an excuse to kill every charter public school in the Commonwealth. There seems to be no end to their quest to halt any progressive education policy that could get in the way of tightening their death grip on the mediocrity that serves as an express lane into the school-to-prison pipeline for our students.

And make no mistake, the constant MTA obstructionism to block any kind of innovation in education — from charter public schools to innovation zones to help struggling district public schools in need of intervention to even asking for accountability around how education funding is spent — is anything but progressive. It’s the height of regressivism.

But what is most painful for parents is the audacity on the part of the teachers unions to lecture the rest of us on the morality of their position while they block new ideas, approaches, and compromises. Instead, they attempt to force parents to accept an educational system that keeps our children mired in poverty as the result of their unwillingness to change and evolve to meet the needs of our communities.

Last week, the New Bedford chapter of Massachusetts Parents United held a press conference at the shuttered Kempton School, which was to be the site of the new Alma del Mar campus, in an effort to make sure that parents and students impacted directly were heard in this process.

Rosa showed up at the event only to be confronted by actual children and families who have to deal with the consequences of the compromise proposal being killed. He heard directly from furious mothers and fathers who were literally crying at the thought of being forced to send their children to a district school in state receivership

Imagine being a parent of a kindergartner who would be forced to attend an underperforming school and watching some special interest group that has decided to make your neighborhood ground zero in their political turf wars.

Who is listening to our parents’ voices? As one parent at the event noted, kids are only school-aged for a finite number of years. How can we, in good conscience, ask families to wait for change they know may never come? How long will we deny parents the agency to choose a better future for their children?

Meet the Author

Keri Rodrigues

Founder and CEO, Massachusetts Parents United
Now that’s what I call immoral.

Keri Rodrigues is the founder of Massachusetts Parents United, the largest urban parent advocacy organization in the Commonwealth.