THE PROPOSED charter school expansion plan crafted by New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, Alma del Mar charter school, and state education Commissioner Jeff Riley earlier this year was simply too risky for New Bedford. After reading the memorandum of understanding (MOU), which became public in March of 2019, I saw this as a bad deal.
This plan was a perceived as a compromise, which would have allowed Alma, which already operates a charter school in New Bedford, to open a second school with 450 seats, instead of its sought-after 1,188 seats. New Bedford, in turn, would have to provide Alma with a school building, free of charge. This new charter school, Alma II, would enroll children from the adjacent neighborhood only, as opposed to enrolling through the citywide lottery, which state law currently requires. If this proposal fell apart, the state education commissioner would grant Alma 594 seats through the traditional enrollment system and New Bedford would not be required to give a school building to Alma.
First, all the parties involved knew that this deal would require state legislative action. The deal came to the Legislature as a home rule petition. These are special pieces of legislation that address a specific need of a particular city or town; but, they must not materially deviate from existing laws in Massachusetts.
The petition filed on behalf of New Bedford and Alma was exceptionally substantive and was a severe deviation from existing charter school law. So, for proponents of this deal to argue that this should have been rubber-stamped by the Legislature is, at best, naive and, at its worst, a misleading effort to push substantive change in Massachusetts education policy without the safeguards of legislative scrutiny.
But let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that this proposal was in front of the Legislature as a proper bill. In that case, I still would have voted against it.
Under this agreement, a student living in the proposed neighborhood zone would, by default, be assigned to the charter school. That fact, alone, is jaw-dropping. But it gets worse. According to the MOU, no student would be guaranteed the option of going to a public school. Instead, all requests to attend a public school would require “the approval of the [New Bedford Public Schools] Superintendent.” In what world is it acceptable to tell a child they have to go to a privately-run charter school?
The MOU also mandates that the superintendent consider “Alma’s target enrollment and growth plan” when pondering a student’s request to attend a public school. Call me crazy, but I would prefer that the superintendent consider the interests of the child, not the interests of a privately-run charter school. Sadly, the MOU says nothing about what’s best for the child when considering requests to attend a public school. The superintendent can only consider what’s best for Alma II. Can you imagine the superintendent telling a child they have to go to a charter school because Alma II’s “plan” depends on it? Is this how we want New Bedford managing the education of our public school students?
Further, had this plan gone through, the majority of students going to this neighborhood school would have been living outside its geographic zone, which would have entirely defeated the sole purpose of this plan. According to the MOU, if a student living outside the neighborhood zone wants to go to Alma II, the superintendent (in consultation with Alma, of course) could approve such a transfer. Additionally, if an existing Alma II student moves outside of the neighborhood zone, she or he could still attend Alma II “subject to the approval” of the superintendent.
This point is exacerbated by the fact that half of the eligible kids in this zone have already opted out. So, had this deal gone through, Alma II would have been picking students from outside the zone on day one and would not have been a “neighborhood school” in practice. I find it astonishing that this basic truth about the proposal was never part of the conversation during any of the public discourse. The whole purpose of this deal was to contain the student-pool eligible for charter schools in one geographic area to allow New Bedford to cut costs more efficiently. That sole policy aim would have fallen apart had this deal been put into practice.
Advocates of this proposal argued that the creation of this “neighborhood zone” for Alma II would save the city millions of dollars. We heard this refrain on a daily basis since January. In fact, it is the only public argument by city officials in favor of this proposal, as far as I can tell. According to the city, this deal would have saved New Bedford $4 million compared to the 594-seat plan with the conventional citywide enrollment process.
This figure is highly speculative, however.
The mayor, with the $4 million figure, assumes that under the 594-seat fallback plan, Alma would be able to fill 264 seats through the regular lottery system during the first year. This argument also assumes that Alma will be able to fill 132 seats in the each of the second and third years, and 66 in the fourth. With all the progress our public schools have been making, in addition to the fact that a significant percentage of New Bedford schools outperform Alma already, I find these assumptions unreliable. So, without this deal, Alma would have the burden of filling the seats first, which is not guaranteed, before it receives any money from New Bedford.
What is guaranteed, however, is the money New Bedford would have paid Alma II if the deal were enacted. According to the MOU, the New Bedford Public Schools’ “obligation for tuition payments to Alma II pursuant to G.L. c. 71, § 71, § 89 shall be set at the target enrollment for each school year as set forth in Section 3” (emphasis added). Target enrollment is not actual enrollment, so New Bedford would have paid Alma II for 450 students over several years, even if it enrolled less than 450 students. New Bedford could have been paying tuition for children who don’t even exist! How was this good negotiating? There was absolutely no risk for Alma II regarding tuition payments because it was guaranteed this money at the expense, and risk, of New Bedford. How is this fair and equitable to our students?
Another piece to the financial side of this proposal is that a large fraction of the alleged savings would have been from discretionary money from the state education commissioner. If the “neighborhood school” got fully approved, the commissioner would have given the city $1.5 million over three years. But if the deal fell through, which it did, the money would be withheld. Punishment, perhaps, but whatever the reason, this was a bad way of doing business, especially since the commissioner was already dangling the threat of more charter seats over New Bedford’s head if the deal wasn’t done.
The most frustrating element to this proposal is that it was crafted without any insight from the state legislative delegation whatsoever. Surely New Bedford city officials and the commissioner were aware that this deal would eventually require legislative action in Boston.
Why did they not call us into a room to flesh out a solution during the construction of the MOU? Perhaps then, we would have had an equitable solution that didn’t prioritize the interests of a privately-run charter school over New Bedford kids. Also, I find it hard to fathom that the parties genuinely believed that this was truly a home rule petition, with such drastic change in education policy as the centerpiece of the deal. For the parties to pound on our doors at the 11th hour with a disastrously-flawed proposal, and then subsequently resort to blame-gaming when we did not acquiesce, is simply bad policy-making and, quite frankly, disappointing.
Furthermore, why were the New Bedford school committee and city council left out of the discussions leading to this proposal? I was shocked when I attended a school committee meeting shortly after this tentative plan was released in January and found that not one school committee member was invited to take part in the construction of this agreement. In fact, one member stormed out of the school committee hearing for that very reason. Another expressed concern that he was not involved in any way at all.
Lastly, I am not comfortable with forfeiting a large fraction of our public school district, including its children, to a privately-run school. If this proposal happened and two years from now Alma II took a turn for the worse, what then? How would we get our kids back? How would we get our neighborhood school back? None of these concerns were addressed in the MOU. Again, all risk for us, none for Alma — a common theme. To me, this deal was doomed because telling a child she has to go to a privately-run school that has no legislative oversight and no democratically-elected school committee is wrong. I could not, in good conscience, support something like that.
I applaud Rep. Antonio Cabral and Rep. William Straus for not being rubber stamps for such disastrous policy. I applaud Rep. Jim Hawkins for standing up, literally, against the attempt to sneak this through as a home rule petition. I also applaud New Bedford city councilors Maria Giesta and Hugh Dunn for voting against this measure. Their districts would have been affected by this and it is telling that they did not support it.
The truth is, there was much opposition to this expansion among those who could see past New Bedford’s overly simplistic “it’ll save some money” argument. Deals like this should never be considered, even as a last resort. Moving forward in New Bedford, we should focus on improving our public school district, instead of forfeiting it piecemeal to a charter school’s board of trustees.
Chris Hendricks is a state representative representing the 11th Bristol District.