New Bedford charter expansion ‘mind-boggling’

Alma del Mar is trying to bypass the will of voters

CHARTER SCHOOLS STARTED as a hopeful experiment in public education. But as is possible with any experiment, this one has failed. It’s time to move beyond the charter school debate and focus on the issues that will create opportunities for every public school student in Massachusetts.

Voters across Massachusetts resoundingly said “No!” to lifting the cap on charter schools in 2016 when the issue was on the ballot; now proponents of these privately run, publicly funded ventures are trying other avenues to reach their goal, bypassing the will of the voters (and taxpayers).

The request by Alma del Mar charter school in New Bedford to add 1,188 seats to its current enrollment of 450 is mind-boggling. Such an expansion is exactly what voters in New Bedford and nearly every other community statewide said they opposed.

Thanks to a vigorous grass-roots campaign, Massachusetts residents who cast ballots in 2016 had learned the basics of the charter school system: Privately run schools that have found ways to include some students and exclude others drain public funds away from schools that educate all children.

That message resonated, even though an expensive campaign largely financed by secret out-of-state sources tried to convince voters otherwise.

While current Massachusetts charter regulations do allow for more charter school seats in New Bedford, the community has no appetite for what Alma del Mar is serving. The people elected to represent the views of the community—city councilors, school committee members, state representatives, and New Bedford’s mayor—have forcefully opposed this expansion as well as a smaller proposal from the Global Learning charter school to increase its enrollment by 100.

It is easy to understand their opposition: Why shift $15 million from schools that educate all children to private operations that do not perform as well as many of the public schools, and do not dazzle in any way?

Claims that Alma del Mar, which enrolls students in kindergarten through grade 5, is somehow exceptional are dubious. Even the state’s own narrow accountability system finds Alma del Mar is not meeting targets, while more than half of the elementary schools in New Bedford are meeting theirs. New Bedford Public Schools have far more certified teachers in their classrooms; last year more than  94 percent of the teachers in New Bedford Public Schools were fully certified, compared with fewer than 63 percent of the teachers at Alma del Mar. Also last year, Alma del Mar sought to send some of its students to public schools for courses the charter school was unable to offer.

The original charter school experiment (devised by teachers!) was meant to foster innovation that could be shared with all public schools. That is not happening in New Bedford, where Mayor Jon Mitchell has described Alma del Mar as “not a constructive partner with the school district.”

So here we are: district schools losing huge sums of money to charters and receiving none of the intended “innovation” charters were supposed to foster.

The political forces pushing a charter school agenda are doing a disservice to students attending district public schools, that is, the vast majority of students. The New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools brings together students, parents and guardians, educators, local leaders and concerned members of the community to talk about their public schools and what they value.

Public education is the foundation of our democracy and should have democratic oversight. New Bedford community members should have a say in how to best meet the needs of their students, yet they have no say whatsoever in the fate of an idea that will siphon $15 million from public-school classrooms in New Bedford.

One of the chairs of the coalition has publicly stated that the group does not want to close any charter schools; rather, the coalition is alarmed by this costly expansion of a program that is not worth such a significant public investment.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, not the New Bedford community, will decide the fate of Alma del Mar’s expansion as well as the fate of all the students who would be forced to withstand the devastating repercussions of New Bedford losing so much state aid for public education.

Meet the Author

Lisa Guisbond

Analyst, FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing
Let’s do the right thing for all students. Let’s shift our focus to fixing the outdated funding formula used to calculate state spending on public schools.  It’s time to end the practice of diverting limited resources into marginal education programs detached from democratic community oversight.

Lisa Guisbond is the executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, which advocates on a number of educational issues, including charter school expansion, innovation zones, and standardized testing.