For many years in New Bedford, and elsewhere in Massachusetts, the charter school movement and traditional district public schools have been at war.
Successful charter schools like Alma del Mar have pointed to the positive results they have achieved independent of district management. Their proponents have asked why not expand the number of charter schools in urban districts like New Bedford that consistently rank among the poorest performing in the state.
Districts like New Bedford, on the other hand, have pointed to signs of turnaround progress they have made when they are professionally and progressively managed, as well as adequately funded. They point out related flaws in the state’s underfunded and inequitable educational aid system, and the advantage that charters schools may have because their student body is built by an “opt-in” lottery that favors the children of involved parents.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mayor Jon Mitchell and Alma del Mar charter school seem to have broken through the gridlock.
Their proposal to start a 450-seat K-8 charter school that will draw its students from a specific New Bedford neighborhood is an innovative one. The new school would be located at the former Kempton School, closed three years ago by the city.
The arrangement would provide New Bedford with the benefit of a second Alma school while avoiding the lottery system. It will address the city’s concern about students being drawn from across New Bedford taking funding out of the district system without providing it with the ability to close classrooms. When only a small number of students leave a given classroom there are few economies to be achieved because it’s difficult to cut back services.
Although there are many details still to be worked out between Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, Mayor Mitchell and Alma Executive Director Will Gardner, we are encouraged that they have achieved a compromise that may work for all sides. We commend Riley for his open-mindedness, Mitchell for his tenacity and Gardner for his dynamic determination to expand his school.
Almost immediately, we have heard some opposition that we hope is not reflexive. The New Bedford Educators Association opposes any additional charter school seats in New Bedford and the libertarian-minded Pioneer Institute, as well as other charter school activists, remain in favor of immediately replacing as many district seats with charters as possible. Alma originally applied for 1,188 charter seats to eventually open two entirely new charter schools in New Bedford.
Neither the union nor the Pioneer Institute is likely to get all they wish for with the current state government divided between a Democratic Legislature skeptical of additional charters and a Republican governor who is in favor of them.
There is still a ways to go before this plan can be implemented. The City Council will have to approve the transfer of the Kempton building to Alma; the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will have to pass off on the innovative arrangement and the state Legislature will also have to approve it. We urge all three groups to go forward.
We are encouraged that the three parties have worked together to achieve something creative that may not only break the gridlock between charters and the district in New Bedford, but in other corners of the state as well.