January 18, 2019
In the long and bitter war between public school districts and charter schools, we may have a temporary truce, courtesy of Jeff Riley, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, and Mayor Jon Mitchell of New Bedford.
The two have just agreed to an imaginative arrangement to resolve a charter school expansion controversy in the Whaling City — one that legislators and state regulators should bless.
The well-regarded Alma del Mar Charter School had applied to add 1,188 new charter seats across two new schools. Alma’s expansion proposal had created a pitched battle, with the mayor, the district, and the local teachers’ union lined up against the charter.
No longer. Under the agreement Riley and Mitchell have struck, the charter will start a new 450-seat K-8 charter that will serve a specific neighborhood and enroll its students through the district’s regular student assignment system. Alma will be given a currently closed New Bedford school building for its new neighborhood school. The New Bedford Public Schools will rework the district’s school zone boundaries to create a zone for the new school, which will open some of its grades this fall. Thus New Bedford will get the benefits of another quality charter school, but without the lottery process that charter opponents contend favors students with more involved parents.
Now the mayor is happy, New Bedford Superintendent Thomas Anderson, another important participant in the discussions, is happy, and the charter is happy. Mayor Mitchell stresses that having Alma’s new school enroll its students through the district’s system rather than a usual charter school lottery addresses one of the principal objections that district school teachers have to charters.
“I think many school teachers will recognize the fairness to them of this approach,” he said.
Mitchell also notes that because the new charter will be separate from the district but play by the same student assignment rules, it will create an important student performance comparison point.
So far, the only annoyed parties appear to be the Pioneer Institute, which would like to see more new charter seats in New Bedford, and the teachers’ unions. The New Bedford Educators Association opposes the agreement, as does its parent, the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Sadly, teachers’ union opposition has become virtually reflexive when it comes to Commonwealth charter schools, in large part because charters aren’t automatically union schools. Still, if the faculty members at the new school decide they want to unionize, they will certainly have that ability. Indeed, that prospect should act a prod for management to keep the faculty members content with school working arrangements.
But given that the city and the superintendent approve of the new agreement in New Bedford, union opposition shouldn’t be allowed to become a serious stumbling block.
This deal needs approval at a number of levels. The City of New Bedford will have to okay the transfer of the building to Alma. The Massachusetts Board of Secondary and Elementary Education will need to approve the plan, which Riley will present to the board on Tuesday. And Beacon Hill lawmakers will have to pass legislation to authorize this new arrangement.
All parties involved deserve credit for the creative energy they have put into this. It’s brave on the part of the mayor, who has put his credibility on the line for a compromise that should be good for his city. Working on a neighborhood student assignment basis is a new commitment for the charter school, one that comes with new challenges. And it’s a new model for charters, one that just might help resolve the deep divide between the district public schools and charters.
This kind of creative commitment to workable solutions is part of the promise of Riley’s secretaryship. Now he and Mitchell need other bold leaders to help them bring this experiment to fruition.