New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell speaks in opposition to the proposed Innovators Charter School during a Dec. 15, 2021, public hearing at Kilburn Mill. Credit: The New Bedford Light

If you could put the supporters and opponents of charter schools in New Bedford on separate boats in the harbor and send them out to sea through the hurricane barrier never to return, that might be a good start.

Mayor Jon Mitchell could steer the first boat — he’d like that, particularly if there was a spotlight shining on him that lit him up against a harbor backdrop he could brag about. BayCoast Bank President and CEO Nick Christ could steer the second boat — he’d only like that if he could do it from behind the scenes, except he definitely would like a BayCoast Bank banner flapping in the wind behind his craft, one that boasted about about the latest dollar figure the community’s bank had given to the city through its great largesse.

If you could put Gov. Charlie Baker and the South Coast legislative delegation in their own one-way boats out to sea, that might be good third and fourth steps toward solving the never-ending failures of low-income school districts in Massachusetts. Those boats could be called the “Didn’t Get It Done” in eight years, and the “Do Me a Favor, Mr. Speaker,” respectively.

They have all failed the state’s Gateway Cities as these once great former mill towns and seaports enter their second half-century of trying to recover from stagnant economies and failing school systems.

All this cynicism on my part is because there is nothing quite so discouraging to the hopes for the future of New Bedford as this never-ending, always acrimonious debate over each new charter school as they open or expand.

One side says that the New Bedford school system continues to lag in achievement behind most of the state and the only solution is to open these public charter schools that operate outside of the political influence of teachers unions and school committees. 

What this complaint really means is that urban schools with large low-income populations always trail the more affluent suburbs and smaller cities on measures like the MCAS scores. We don’t know how to fix that problem, so let’s try to operate the schools as private subcontractors. You know, like ABC Disposal, the city’s privatized and troubled community trash hauler that just this week got sold to a national corporate outfit.

Meanwhile the other side — spell that teachers unions and the politicians beholden to them — says that the state’s educational aid formula, even with a big boost to the so-called Chapter 70 money last year, continues to be grossly inadequate to reimburse Gateway Cities like New Bedford and Fall River for the costs associated with the loss of students to charter schools.

This side insists, despite all common sense, that when hundreds of charter students leave the district schools, they couldn’t possibly save money by closing school buildings and laying off teachers. The redistricting process is just far too complicated a thing to be done in any kind of sensible matter, they maintain.

Each side unveils their line graphs and pie charts with facts and figures about why the numbers just don’t work. The charter school boosters have numbers to show the urban schools are poorer performing than they actually are. The urban districts have numbers that show they are going to have to lay off teachers and reduce services if they lose money and pupils to the charter schools. By the way, under Massachusetts law, both district schools and charter schools are considered public schools so what does it really matter in terms of financing whether the money is spent here or there. It’s the performance of the individual school, charter or district, isn’t it?

All this has boiled over in New Bedford over the last few weeks as the state held a public hearing on the proposed Innovators Charter School at the Kilburn Mill. One thing you can say about the teachers unions, they are good at organizing a demonstration.

Attendees at December’s public hearing on the proposed Innovators Charter School chant in protest following the hearing in Kilburn Mill. Credit: Video provided by Cynthia Roy

The Massachusetts Teachers Association descended on the reborn factory-as-arts-mecca with all the energy of a collective bargaining session. Speaker after speaker talked about the imminent demise of the entire New Bedford school system if the Innovators school opened. For their part, the backers of the Innovators School claimed they are embarking on a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) early college program that just couldn’t possibly be duplicated in the district system. Well, not if the charter school skims off the most motivated parents and students it can’t.

LaSella Hall speaks out against the proposed Innovators Charter School in December at the Kilburn Mill in New Bedford after the Proposed New Bedford/Fall River Charter School Public Hearing held there had formally came to an end. Credit: Video provided by Cynthia Roy

Reasonable people can disagree over whether charter schools are a good thing. But for better or worse they are the current law in Massachusetts. And in terms of working in the real world, and what’s achievable (as opposed to what’s good politics for the mayor or state reps), it’s helpful to remember that the governor for another year is one Charles Duane Baker, a man who forged his own political identity creating the libertarian-leaning Pioneer Institute, whose main goal in existence has been the expansion of the charter school system.

That’s the current state of things.

The Innovators School founders say they want to focus on STEM education for a population that is underserved by it. It wants all of its students to earn a junior college (associate’s degree) by the time they finish high school, similar to early-college programs that are already being employed on a smaller scale in Fall River and recently approved in New Bedford.

They’ve said it is a Fall River-New Bedford joint venture but in reality, two-thirds of the available charter school seats are in New Bedford (according to the 18% percent cap for Massachusetts’ lowest-performing 10% of school districts, which includes almost all the state’s post-industrial cities of a certain size).

The same groups that turned out at Kilburn Mill at the beginning of the month have turned out in force for every charter school proposed for New Bedford over the past few decades. They’ve opposed the ones that have succeeded like Alma del Mar and they’ve opposed the ones that have failed like City on a Hill. They’ve opposed the ones in between like Global Learning Charter Public School.

The debate on the surface about charter schools is always about draining money from the urban districts outside of Greater Boston, which in truth are much harder-pressed financially than the state’s economic hub, where the economy is strong and the property taxes that support public education are ample.

But the unspoken and more substantive challenge that the Gateway Cities district public schools face when charter public schools drain their students is that they also draw their student body because of the so-called “opt-in” system. The most engaged parents are the ones who apply for their children to be in the charter school lottery. That drains many of the most engaged parents and children from the district system.

The same thing happens when engaged parents apply for their children to attend the public vocational-tech schools (which have become entrance requirement schools until some recent reforms). A similar phenomenon happens when parents opt for the Catholic or private schools like Bishop Stang or Nativity Prep or Our Sister’s School.

All these schools siphon the students of engaged parents from the district public schools, which are then left with the least-engaged parents and the students with the most challenges. 

If the proposed Innovators School’s grade 6-12 campus draws 495 students from the New Bedford system and 240 from the Fall River, that will leave the districts’ high schools with a greater proportion of the most endangered students to educate. 

Sure, there is always a small proportion of students in the honors programs at these big urban high schools that will have more opportunity from the variety offered at this scale, but the large majority of students will not be in honors. So it’s understandable why the local officials in New Bedford and Fall River, working hard to rebuild their systems after years of state and regional neglect, would say the sky is falling.

The problem, however, is that the parents of non-honors kids going through the New Bedford and Fall River district high schools know that their children will only go through high school once. So when these charter schools offer a chance at more individual attention and a more rigorous academic environment, there’s no shortage of parents who won’t opt for that chance and take their kids out of the district school. How do you say to these parents that they can’t avail themselves of an alternative school that might improve their youngster’s primary chance of succeeding in life?

No one has really solved the public district/public charter school debate in Massachusetts. A 2016 referendum strongly rejected expanding the charter cap — but that was largely driven by a suburban vote where the district schools are more successful. The urban districts, which continually score in the lowest 10 percent of districts eligible for charter seats, are always vulnerable to losing some of their most engaged parents and students.

If you want to know how well some of these STEM-based charter schools do, consider that the best of them continually score among the highest-achieving high schools in the state, including STEM charter schools located in Gateway cities like Worcester and Marlboro.

Here in New Bedford, the fight over Innovators has been startlingly acrid. And this week the dysfunction that lies at the heart of the charter/district school debate was in full flower.

In an amazing release of press statements and a full-page ad in The Standard-Times, Nick Christ, who had been vice president of the Innovators Charter School group, announced that he was bowing out of the effort to establish the school and instructing all employees of BayCoast to remove themselves of any positions involving charter schools. The issue had divided the region’s consensus on educational matters, he said.

“We recognize, however, that our involvement with the plan for Innovators Charter School has become a distraction to that consensus,” he wrote.

Given the ferocious opposition at the public hearing at Kilburn Mill, Christ was probably worried about the adverse publicity for his bank — which with multiple offices in both Greater New Bedford and Greater Fall River — is not exactly a small operation. Banks, after all, want to do business with both pro- and anti-charter residents of the region.

BayCoast has been an enormous charitable presence in New Bedford for the past 15 years as it has expanded from Fall River. 

It contributed $500,000 to start SouthCoast Health’s capital drive, and Christ in his resignation announcement said it has contributed another $500,000 to education of all sorts. 

It has clearly been a supporter of charter schools — it contributed the $80,000 in seed money for the initial fundraising for the Atlantis Charter School, a 1,400-seat Grade 6-12 campus founded in 2015 and which built a three-building campus in three years in Fall River. (Full disclosure, BayCoast is also one of the original funders of this nonprofit, digital news site, The New Bedford Light.)

Reached for comment about Christ’s announcement, Mayor Mitchell was having none of it.

“He’s clearly damaged his bank’s reputation by launching this school,” he said. “It’s convenient for him to pull out now that it’s in motion.”

Mitchell’s comment not only sounds like an attempt to kill the Innovators’ school in its crib, it sounds like an effort to cost Christ his job. One wonders what may have happened to cause the blood to be so bad between them.

Mitchell says that Christ did not approach him about the proposal to start the charter school until two days before it was submitted to the state.

A representative for Christ said the BayCoast leader would not comment on the mayor’s remarks. Christ apparently believes comments beyond his previous announcement would be counterproductive.

The state will make its decision on the Innovators Charter School by the end of February.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

Editor’s note: BayCoast Bank is a sponsor of The New Bedford Light. Sponsors and individual donors have no influence over content.

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