Ignore the charter school think-tank crowd

We don’t need and can't afford charter school expansion in New Bedford

YOU ARE AN EDUCATION RESEARCHER sent to discover best practices in urban schools so that you can replicate them to create results for more kids—kids who you believe are trapped in mediocre schools. You look at three exemplar schools to scale up:

School A has 336 students and rates in the state’s 85th accountability percentile, a measure now used to aggregate a school’s performance on MCAS relative to other schools in the state. This school made 95 percent improvement toward its own goals, such as increasing the percentage of students who score advanced or proficient on statewide exams, or improving attendance rates. Remarkably, 46 percent of this school’s students have a first language other than English, and 75 percent are considered economically disadvantaged. The school has been named a School of Recognition by the state, among only 50 others.

School B has 730 students and rates in the state’s 59th accountability percentile and made 83 percent improvement toward its targets. The school is home to specialized classrooms designed to serve students with severe behavioral and developmental delays, and 27 percent of the school’s students have disabilities, 44 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 21 percent have a first language other than English.

School C has 413 students and rates in the state’s 38th accountability percentile and made 47 percent improvement toward its targets. At the school, 23 percent of the students have a first language other than English, and 58 percent come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

If you had to make the call on which school to expand by 300 percent – to double- or triple-down on – I suspect you would favor schools A and B, New Bedford district public schools Congdon and Pulaski, respectively, over School C, Alma del Mar Charter School, the school actually proposing such an extraordinary expansion.

The New Bedford district public schools have a plethora of higher performing schools. Not just Pulaski and Congdon, but 10 of New Bedford’s elementary schools finished higher in accountability ranking than Alma del Mar, more than half of the city’s primary schools. On improvement toward targets, 18 of the district’s 23 schools exceed Alma’s 47 percent improvement rate. And among those performing worse than Alma? The city’s other two charters: Global Learning and City on a Hill. The district educates a higher percentage of English language learners, students with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students and has schools soaring past Alma nonetheless.

Why siphon from the most successful of New Bedford’s schools, which outperform charters with a more challenging student population, just to increase charter seats? With a concerted and well-funded public relations strategy unmatched by cash-strapped district schools, it seems the only advantage charters have over traditional public schools is in the marketing department. It’s a credit to the public relations efforts of charters that the success of the New Bedford district public schools relative to its charters comes as a surprise.

The New Bedford district public schools have undergone a marked turnaround over the last six years, stemming the tide of mediocrity and ineffectiveness that branded the district poorly across the state. The wave of accountability that rolled in post-ed reform hit New Bedford hard. Systems were put in place, issues were corrected, difficult decisions were made. The road to improvement has not always been smooth, but focused leadership and putting students first has left the district primed for takeoff, not takeover.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released New Bedford from state monitoring, with its lead monitor remarking in August of 2017, “I’m really struck, and I hope you are as well, with what an incredible difference we can see today in this district…we are seeing things operate much more effectively, we’re seeing decisions made in the best interests of kids, resources are being used more effectively, much more coordination, supervision, and support. I can’t emphasize this enough, there has been a huge, huge step forward here.”

The district was an emergency room patient in need of intense intervention, measures that were not taken without discomfort. The bleeding has long since stopped, and leadership is now charged with carrying out the physical therapy. The district is stable, building strength, and achieving new milestones every day. Superintendent Thomas Anderson has direct experience leading a district out of underperforming status, and is flanked by a well-respected and homegrown team of administrators and hard-working, dedicated teachers capable of completing the transformation. For the first time in recent memory, the city exudes a healthy balance of excitement and contentment with the schools’ approach, while the district maintains a committed and dogged path to improvement. New Bedford aims to have not just an acceptable school district, but one that is a leader in Massachusetts urban education.

Such a transformation will not come easily, nor without significant expense. And despite best-practice management of existing resources, continued momentum is dependent on the additional investment needed to grow district services and shore up areas of weakness. Without foundation budget reform, the city must turn to its already-stretched tax base. The loss in enrollment associated with charter expansion, a much more significant factor than the distraction that is the charter school reimbursement formula, would make continued district progress difficult if not impossible. To put it simply, the district cannot afford a single additional charter seat, let alone a doubling of its charter enrollment. Such an expansion is a direct attack on the district’s agenda, essentially tying the hands of the promising new superintendent and deflating the excitement that now surrounds school improvement in the city.

After 2016’s defeat of Question 2, a measure rejected by nearly 60 percent of New Bedford voters, the financial impacts of charter schools are well-known and generally accepted. Districts benefit from economies of scale, which erode with expansion of charter seats. Instead of building up the traditional district’s resources and programs, increasing quality for all, the charter must spend dollars to create an entirely different district administrative infrastructure, account for occupancy costs, and still deliver comparable education services, which they can only achieve by staffing classrooms with lower-paid and less-experienced teaching staff. Some would argue this is an example of efficiency on their part, but with Alma students missing significantly more instructional time due to disciplinary action than those in the New Bedford Public Schools, we’ll take our chances with those more skilled in classroom management.

In some cases, traditional districts can compensate for charter expansion by laying off their own teachers and closing schools—scaling down—but in New Bedford this isn’t so. Given the size of the district, the enrollment and locations of its schools, and the physical constraints of its buildings, there are no apparent opportunities to close and combine schools. Charters enroll students from all over the city, meaning the loss of enrollment is rarely clustered in just one or two traditional schools, rather in dribs and drabs across the city. Upon expansion, a class of 24 students isn’t reduced to zero. It might become a class of 22. The district still needs a teacher, a classroom, a school, services, and so on, while its budget is disproportionately reduced. It would be even harder to manage such a downsizing if the timing of expansion is unknown and volatile, and significant and well-founded doubts exist about Alma’s ability to execute their own expansion plan. There is little buildable or acquirable space in the city for three new schools to occupy, and even fewer early-career educators in the South Coast labor market willing to work for the below-market wages charters tend to offer. Chartered for more seats, the school can expand as it pleases, adding insult to injury to the public schools left to adapt.

It is ironic that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has aggressively sought grant funds to expand charter schools across the state, in effect creating smaller districts with lesser economies of scale, while simultaneously offering grant funds to smaller districts to regionalize with one another to achieve greater economies of scale. No taxpayer wants to pay twice as many superintendents, business managers, curriculum directors, and principals than they must, and they certainly don’t want to funnel public money into the purchase of privately owned buildings, as charters do. New Bedford remains vulnerable to expansion only because an opaque and ever-moving goalpost of a formula determines the district to be among the state’s bottom 10 percent. Amid talk of equity lawsuits related to the foundation budget formula, one wonders about the legitimacy of the flawed and fluid formula that determines the bottom 10 percent of districts, and how expansion of an entire second track of “public” schools reconciles with good faith efforts to provide an adequate education to all students.

It is wise to ignore the charter think-tank crowd, interlopers getting the band back together after an embarrassing trouncing of the 2016 charter ballot initiative that racked up nearly half a million dollars in campaign finance violations. Betraying their hostility to New Bedford and its people with lazy allusions to Captain Ahab, every outsider’s plea for expansion comes with a patina of paternalism. They think they know better than we do down here in quaint New Bedford – better than its leadership, better than its residents. Opposition to charter expansion comes not just from the mayor’s office, or from a group of city councilors, the area’s legislative delegation, through unanimous vote of the School Committee, or from the business and civic leaders that have spoken against charter growth alike. It also comes from parents and students who have organized to save our schools.

Meet the Author

Joshua Amaral

Member, New Bedford School Committee
Meet the Author

Bruce Rose

President, New Bedford NAACP
Broad opposition to charter school expansion is not the result of scare tactics, partisan pearl clutching, costly campaigns, or even ill-will toward Alma del Mar, a school sincere in its intention to do good work. Beyond the financial costs, New Bedford opposes expansion because the opportunity costs are too great. The district achieving its potential as a thriving urban public school system is within grasp, and expansion would cut its legs out from under it. Not only can the city of New Bedford not afford charter expansion, but New Bedford’s students can’t afford to be in the crossfire of ideologies that compete at their expense. Led capably by an outstanding superintendent and stable political leadership, New Bedford is ready to go it on its own. The best schools for New Bedford students are the New Bedford Public Schools, and expanding a charter’s portfolio while stunting the reinvention of district schools disadvantages New Bedford students and ignores the will of the city’s people.

Joshua Amaral is a member of the New Bedford School Committee and the chair of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees Division IX (urban districts). Bruce Rose is president of the New Bedford NAACP.