New Bedford charter deal is immoral

‘The lesser of two evils is still evil’

STATE REPS. Antonio Cabral, Christopher Hendricks, and William Straus have boldly asserted their opposition to the unprecedented charter school model proposed for the city of New Bedford. They have demonstrated leadership both in terms of understanding the broader implications of this plan as well as protecting the interests of New Bedford families.

The New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools is a grassroots organization of parents and grandparents of New Bedford Public School children, community activists, educators, and youths. The coalition has consistently articulated its resistance to the Alma del Mar charter school expansion deal that was crafted behind closed doors and rushed through to evade public scrutiny. Members of the coalition finally feel like some of our elected leaders are hearing our concerns.

Mayor Jon Mitchell has accused at least one of these legislators of  “doing the bidding of the state’s main teacher’s union.” This is an insult to our coalition, which has worked hard to engage the community over this issue. Our organization held a forum in November and more than 300 residents and educators showed up to voice their discontent. We held two rallies. We have listened to the concerns of countless residents as we have canvassed every section of the city. We have collected petitions. We have made calls to both local and state officials.

In stating that the main teacher’s union is the driver, the mayor has once again dismissed the voices of citizens in the city who are opposed to this deal. The coalition commends these legislators and Rep. James Hawkins of Attleboro for standing up for the children of New Bedford, for defending taxpayers, and for saying what should have been obvious to locally elected officials – the Alma del Mar deal is not a model pertaining only to our city, but is an effort to further privatize public education statewide and derail any semblance of democracy in the process.

I will go further.  This is an effort to destabilize labor, capitalize on real estate wheeling and dealing in the city, and continue the pursuit of gentrification as an economic strategy. This property handover and automatic enrollment into the charter school is untested and unproven, contrary to the former state education secretary’s claim that it is “effective education policy and innovation.” This deal, however, really amounts to a form of corporate experimentation on New Bedford children that is immoral.

Students who live within the charter school’s boundary are, by default, assigned to the school regardless of the schedule, the program, the philosophy of the school, the turnover of teachers, and the fact that the school is not governed by an elected school committee. Families who do not wish to enroll in the school may fill out a change of school assignment, which is subject to approval by the superintendent in consultation with the director of the charter school. Nowhere in the memorandum of understanding drawn up for the expansion plan does it stipulate that the request to opt out of the charter school and to enroll in a traditional public school will be granted.

What is being introduced to families is a complex system and paperwork in the hope that parents and guardians will simply go with the flow. This approach is similar to filling out a mail-in rebate. Some will not fill it out due to various reasons. Others will fill it out incorrectly and will never receive the rebate. Even worse, the decision maker here can arbitrarily decide whether to honor the “rebate.”

This is a very dangerous proposal in the sense that it treats people as consumers rather than as citizens deserving all of the rights, information, and privileges of the common good.  Automatically extracting a student from the public school that she or he is entitled to attend is antithetical to the values of the community.

These “third way” approaches are not unique if we look across the United States. It’s very naïve to think that this is a “better way to do charter schools.” The charter industry has come under fire across this country. In our own state we voted against expansion in 2016.

The Alma del Mar proposal is a politically devious and opportunistic way to skirt citizen resistance to charter expansion and to seek a new approach to doing business so as to survive. The mayor, the majority of the school committee and city council, and some of the state legislators who have stated that this proposal is the “lesser of two evils” need to be reminded that “the lesser of two evils” is still evil. This “pragmatic” lesser of two evils tactic may work for the short term, but it will just embolden establishment politics and undermine future chances for real progressive change.

The message we’re sending the state is that policymakers can betray our concerns as long as they offer us something marginally better. Where will this end? We need to put moral principles above short-term political expediency. Our local officials have claimed that their hands were tied. This begs the question: Why is it that the commissioner of education and a charter operator can tie your hands, but hundreds of people in your community and many others who continue to resist this deal can’t tie your hands?

Public property should be utilized for the public good. As a coalition, we can think of numerous uses for the former Kempton school. Giving it up at no cost to a private charter operator is egregious. Agreeing to pay for a pre-determined enrollment figure regardless of how many of those seats are actually filled is morally repugnant. The 450-seat plan guarantees that public school teachers lose their jobs at a rate of 1 teacher to every 25 students going to the charter school, whereas the alternative “threat” of 594 seats does not have such a calculation. Furthermore, neither expansion plan prohibits Alma del Mar from seeking additional seats in the future.

There are vibrant programs in our public schools. New Bedford public school teachers are better credentialed than their charter school counterparts. Granted, there is no such thing as a perfect public school system. We realize that we have work to do to improve our public schools and are poised as a coalition to partner with the public school system in order to address those matters and critique the system when it is not responsive to the needs of the community. This deal will certainly not move us in the direction of stronger public schools. The idea that you can charter off and syphon public school funding so as to improve public schools is highly disingenuous.

Meet the Author

Ricardo Rosa

Co-chair, New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools
The overwhelming majority of the people of New Bedford are opposed to this deal. We will not be ignored, marginalized, or shamed with false “lesser of two evils” choices. We are fully prepared to continue our resistance to the 450-seat plan and to mount a vigorous resistance to the 594-seat plan should the charter school move in that direction.

Ricardo Rosa is the co-chair of the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools, which together with the Massachusetts Teachers Association has filed a lawsuit to block the proposed Alma del Mar neighborhood charter school. Rosa is an associate professor at UMass Dartmouth.