May 4, 2019
State Rep. Chris Markey has filed a home rule petition with the state Legislature that would allow Alma del Mar to operate a 450-seat neighborhood charter school in New Bedford.
The Legislature should pass it. It should allow this experiment with the first neighborhood charter school in Massachusetts to go forward.
The battle between proponents and opponents of the Alma plan have made their arguments. But in the end the City Council and Mayor Jon Mitchell backed the neighborhood charter by a wide margin. Their rationale was that if they had not, the state Department of Education would have saddled the city with a 595-seat charter school. That school would have drawn an additional $4 million from the New Bedford district schools and that school would not have been bound by neighborhood boundaries, drawing the children of many of the city’s most engaged parents from across New Bedford.
Markey, a Democrat from Dartmouth, filed the home rule petition because he is the lawmaker who represents the House district where the new Alma school would be located.
It is more than interesting, however, that state Rep. Bill Straus, whose district also includes some of the neighborhoods where the new school would draw from, so far has not signed on to sponsor it. Neither has state Rep. Tony Cabral, whose district is very nearby, if not including a few streets in the proposed district.
The issue has been a divisive one. Both the New Bedford Educators Association and the Massachusetts Teachers Association — the local and state unions representing teachers — have strenuously opposed the plan, arguing it is the beginning of a process that will draw more and more money away from district public schools. Alma del Mar proponents respond that charter schools are also, in fact, public schools.
All the local state reps, as well as state Sen. Mark Montigny — whose district also includes the new Alma — are Democrats and generally support union issues. Reps. Paul Schmid and Chris Hendricks, who represent other parts of the city, will also be part of the equation.
How the local legislators handle this will send a message to the rest of the Legislature.
Most of the delegation members have been remarkably quiet, perhaps trying to do the right thing by not drawing too much attention to the controversy. There is talk that the proposal could be directed to either the Municipalities or Education committees. That might help keep the heat off some of the local lawmakers and allow legislators from other parts of the state, whose districts are not directly on the line, to make the final decisions.
But in the end all of the delegation members should find a way to make the neighborhood charter experiment happen. The matter will have to be decided quickly as the second Alma plans to open in September.
The residents of New Bedford themselves are divided over charter school issues.
Although city residents, as well as residents across the state, have voted against expanding the cap on charter schools, there remains more than a small amount of support for expanding charters. Alma’s first school has a long waiting list of city parents who want their children to attend there. And in any event, the New Bedford school district is well within the present charter cap, largely because it has long been rated as one of the state’s poorest performing school districts.
Mayor Mitchell says that anyone who opposes the Alma neighborhood charter has a responsibility to explain how the New Bedford district schools will make up the extra $4 million they will lose. The city has been working with some of the delegation members, as well as Alice Peitsch, the House chair of the education committee, and Jeff Riley, the commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, to bring the matter to a landing.
The Legislature has separated the issue of charter funding reform from the state budget, preferring to settle the budget first. Although if the charter funding system is reformed in a way that gives districts with a high number of charter seats more adequate funding, that could have a great effect on whether lawmakers feel the Alma del Mar proposal should go forward.
There are a lot of moving parts here. Maybe a good start would be for some of the local lawmakers to come forward and explain their positions, and what they think should happen in a way that will not hurt either New Bedford school children or the city taxpayers. That’s not easy politically but it’s the right thing to do.