The constructive and clever solution that Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeff Riley proposed for Alma del Mar Charter School’s expansion in New Bedford looked like a sign that the bitter charter debate in Massachusetts might be abating, and that squabbling adults might finally be putting the best interests of children first.
Alas, those hopes were premature.
Instead, Beacon Hill legislators, bowing to pressure from the largest Massachusetts teachers union, have put the whole agreement on life support. They need to get the deal back on track — and fast, with the next school year approaching.
In New Bedford, Alma del Mar has been operating a K-8 charter school since 2011 with great results. It enrolls roughly 440 students, who outperform district peers on standardized tests. For instance, 61 percent of Alma sixth-graders passed the math portion of the MCAS, compared with 23 percent of district sixth-graders. It’s no wonder Alma has a waiting list of more than 600 children.
Yet Alma’s request to expand caused controversy in New Bedford, for all the usual reasons. The charter school wanted state authorization for two more K-8 schools with nearly 1,200 additional seats. The district fought the proposal, contending that such growth, while legal, would have been destabilizing for the city’s finances; students who move to a charter school take state funding with them.
It would have been perfectly legal for the state to approve Alma’s original ask. But instead, Riley stepped in with a compromise: Alma would be allowed one K-8 school with 450 additional seats to be filled over four years under certain conditions. The new school would accept kids only from a new neighborhood zone and not use the traditional citywide lottery method of enrollment. It would be housed in a vacant school building that the city gave the charter at no cost. Alma, in turn, would face a three-year moratorium on requesting additional seats.
The compromise would have meant the New Bedford school district would be educating 450 fewer students, and thus would lose around $4 million in state funding.
In case the 450-seat neighborhood charter school solution failed to win legislative approval, though, Riley had a Plan B: He would grant Alma a traditional expansion of 594 seats, with no freeze on requesting additional seats. This contingency plan would result in around $8 million leaving the district.
That certainly explains why Riley’s compromise earned the support of most stakeholders — the Alma del Mar board of trustees, the New Bedford City Council, the city’s school committee, the school superintendent and, notably, Mayor Jon Mitchell, who has opposed other charter schools.
Only the New Bedford Educators Association, the local chapter of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, opposed the plan. That’s astonishing, since Riley’s compromise actually neutralizes the union’s typical classic criticisms of charter schools: that they cherry-pick students and that they cost the district a lot of money. Riley called the critics’ bluff with a compromise plan that selects students from a neighborhood and not via a citywide lottery and halves the financial impact on the district. Yet the union opposed it anyway.
What’s much worse, though, is the craven response of some elected officials. Take state Representative Christopher Hendricks, for instance, who supported the compromise initially but flipped at the last minute. He told CommonWealth magazine that he supported the bill before he “knew the MTA did not like” it. At least now New Bedford voters know who Hendricks thinks he’s supposed to represent on Beacon Hill. Representative Antonio Cabral also came out against the plan, drawing a withering rebuke from Mitchell: “It’s astonishing to me that he would oppose a measure that would benefit New Bedford school children and only New Bedford school children, so that he could do the bidding of the statewide teachers union,” Mitchell told Commonwealth.
Meanwhile, the bickering sows uncertainty for families in New Bedford. According to proponents of the 450-seat solution, 150 kids from the new neighborhood zone in New Bedford have already been enrolled in what will become the new Alma charter school. Those families are waiting. Hopefully, the Legislature will summon the courage to approve the compromise soon. But if it continues to be blocked by union opposition, Riley should pull the trigger and approve his plan B.