“Hey NB” -- What are your thoughts on the New Bedford Charter School Expansion?
Updated: Mar 13, 2019
Every parent, guardian, student, educator and taxpayer in New Bedford should feel outraged by the “innovative” deal being pushed by state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mayor Mitchell, the majority of the School Committee and the City Council to allow a big expansion of the Alma del Mar charter school. This scheme requires New Bedford to hand over a public school at no cost to the private operator of Alma del Mar and to redraw school district lines to create a “neighborhood” enrollment for the charter school, which families will likely have to opt out of if they do not want their children to attend. Ask yourself:
Are you okay with handing over taxpayer money to fund schools with no democratic oversight?
Charter schools do not have to operate by the same rules as traditional public schools. Charter schools are not accountable to the public. For instance, they do not have to be totally transparent about how public money is spent. Instead of using the money that they siphon from public schools on curriculum and instruction that directly supports students, charters may spend a high percentage of that allotment on management functions, advertising, and marketing. Part of that marketing means, of course, that charters make every attempt to indoctrinate the public with the idea that public schools are failing. A charter school may also spend its money on questionable contracts with organizations or associates connected to the school’s unelected governing board or pay exorbitant “executive” salaries compared to those paid to principals of traditional public schools.
Additionally, charters are run by private boards in contrast with publicly elected school committees in charge of district public schools. Public school committees are not allowed to meet privately or in secret. The guideline ought to be that a school that receives public funds should be subject to public scrutiny. Charters claim to be “public schools,” but they do not behave like one and are not treated like one. A recent 2016 report from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University found that charter boards of directors are typically dominated by people in the financial and corporate sectors, not educators. Furthermore, parents of students in charter schools comprise only 14 percent of charter trustees statewide.
Essentially, charters are not held to the same high standards of equity and transparency that public schools are to ensure the success of all students. Alma is no exception. Not only is giving public school funds to a private entity with no accountability to the public problematic, but gifting one of the city’s oldest school buildings and its land to Alma del Mar is fiscally irresponsible.
Do you think the New Bedford public schools can afford to lose more money?
According to the nonpartisan Foundation Budget Review Commission report completed in 2015, the state is underfunding public schools by more than $1 billion a year. New Bedford is underfunded by nearly $40 million annually. Because our schools are underfunded, they lack adequate staff, enrichment programs, and supplies. Because our schools are underfunded, our students don’t receive the social-emotional support they need. The city’s mayor and school superintendent say they were trying to mitigate the damages to the New Bedford Public Schools when they struck the deal with Commissioner Riley to lower the number of seats Alma would get. The problem, though, is that nothing is preventing Alma from expanding in the following years. The deal made between the city and DESE is a phenomenal example of how charter expansion hurts communities like New Bedford that need every public dollar available. New Bedford voters overwhelmingly rejected The Massachusetts Authorization of Additional Charter Schools and Charter School Expansion Initiative, otherwise known as Question 2, in 2016. We did not want more charter seats then and we do not want them now.
Can you get behind a school that isn’t qualified to meet the needs of special education students or English language learners?
Many charters are not willing and capable of serving all students. According to the Massachusetts Teachers Association (2019), some charter schools “push out students they don’t want to serve through a variety of methods, including extreme discipline and high suspension rates, allowing them to boost their test scores.” Alma touts its achievement, claiming it outperforms our public schools. However, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s data shows us eleven (out of 19) New Bedford elementary schools have Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs) at or above 50. SGPs are measures of student growth based on the statewide growth model. Alma del Mar’s mean SGP is 35. Six New Bedford Schools have a higher English Language Arts scaled score rank than Alma del Mar and five have a higher Math scaled score rank. We highlight this, not to normalize high-stakes testing in our schools (we are not in favor of these tests), but rather to demonstrate that Alma’s claim of “failing public schools” is flawed if we consider the state’s own system of accountability. What Alma is silent about in relation to the schools that it does outperform is the fact that it does not play on an even field as those schools. Most charters fail to serve as many high-need students as their host districts.
For example, one former Alma del Mar parent stated in a personal interview conducted in January (2019) that “there is a whole network of parents who have pulled our kids out because they (the charter school staff) were not able to deal with behavioral and emotional special needs.” According to this parent, her son, who is autistic but high functioning and has Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, was constantly being pulled out of the classroom while at Alma. Mom says her son was routinely suspended in second and third grade. She also shared that her son was denied transportation on a field trip despite having a one-to-one paraprofessional and parental chaperone because the director of the charter school felt that if something were to happen it would reflect poorly on the school’s image. After reflecting on all of the ordeals, she concluded that her son was subject to rules and routines that amounted to a concerted effort to “counsel” him out of the school. The parent states that the Office of Civil Rights had to get involved. Sadly, this was only one among many egregious stories shared by Alma parents.
Any school which receives public funds should be willing to serve and capable of serving all students. This is partly why the Mayor agreed to experiment with a neighborhood charter school. In a recent February 2019 interview on WPRI Channel 12, the Mayor stated, “They (Alma) will have to play the hand they're dealt.” However, because charter schools tend to hire less experienced teachers and are used to getting rid of “high needs students,” are they even capable of meeting the needs of diverse learners in the neighborhood? This is a risky experiment and our children are the guinea pigs.
Are you open to ceding additional public funds, beyond what was initially disclosed, to this experiment?
When “innovative” deals like this are made, it often costs the public more than what was initially disclosed. There are many unanswered questions in this deal. Given the proximity of the charter school to traditional public schools in this “neighborhood model,” the likelihood is that additional public-school administrative time will be needed to work out all of the pieces as this new structure unfolds. We do not know, for example, what the full cost to the city will be given the possibility of traffic disruptions around the Kempton school as a result of the expansion. There are so many concerns that cannot be articulated in the space of one article. The bottom line is that Alma will, very likely, not have to pay the full cost of this decision. New Bedford taxpayers will. If city officials sign off, does the city have recourse to state funds should the deal cost us more than projected? Given that the state does not fund our traditional public schools properly as stated above, the answer to that question is, very likely, NO.
Do you support unjust labor practices and the exploitation of big-hearted educators?
In most charter schools, young teachers work well over 40 hours a week. Teacher turnover is high, given the hours, intensity of the work, and low pay compared to traditional public schools. A WBUR report (2019) found that the “average attrition across the charter school sector in Massachusetts has hovered around 30 percent for the last decade. That is more than double the rate at traditional districts in the state, which have been averaging about 12 percent over the last 10 years.” Furthermore, because most charter schools are not unionized (Alma included), teachers are not afforded an important benefit that all workers should have a right to – due process.
Are you comfortable with the privatization of our schools?
Unfortunately today, “education reformers” are likely to be hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and billionaires, not educators. The reason being that the “education industry” is a potential cash cow for the private sector. Americans regard public education as a mainstay of democracy, but the movement to privatize education is decimating our public schools. Vital resources are being siphoned from our already underfunded public schools to the private sector. Pro-market education reformers prey on vulnerable school districts, amp up hyperbolic narratives of “failing public schools” and incompetent educators, and pitch charters as saviors. Who do you trust more to provide children the education that they deserve: professional educators or wealthy hedge fund managers?
How do you feel about your elected officials throwing their hands up?
We have seen the New Bedford Mayor, Superintendent and even our City Councilors throw their hands up -- proclaiming that they cannot do anything about Alma’s expansion. They blame the state for a “bad law” which enables charters to siphon money from our schools and expand in ways which cripple the public educational institutions. And although there is much work to be done at the State House, do our elected city officials really want to take the position that they have no influence, agency, or power during an election year? If it is within the city’s power not to transfer public property to Alma, then they better think hard about exercising their authority and demonstrating their grit and their commitment to serving their constituents who already made their opinion on charter expansion clear when they voted in 2016.
Undermining our public schools through the expansion of charters presents a grave threat to our democracy. If any of these questions resonated with you, reach out to the New Bedford City Council, School Committee, Mayor, Superintendent, and Massachusetts State Legislators to make your voice heard.
New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools
Cynthia Roy and Ricardo Rosa
Co Chairs of NBCSOS
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