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Millot: The Local Politics of One Massachusetts Charter School Fiasco

The politics6a00e54f8c25c988340120a6d7122c970b-150wi of charter schools is highly partisan, but the divide is not drawn along party lines. The contest is better understood as 1) between those who benefit from the traditional public school system based on geographically defined districts, and those who do not, and 2) a small part of a much bigger playing field where elected officials' positions on any issue are as likely to be conditioned on political agendas as the substantive merits of the case.

Both factors are relevant to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's (BESE) decision to approve the application for the Gloucester Community Arts Charter Schools (GCACS); one more than the other. Both have broader implications for the integrity of charter approval in every state. Today, I’ll cover the local angle.

This tale is set in Gloucester, the historic fishing port captured in Kiplings' Captains Courageous, Longellows' The Wreck of the Hesperus, and the maritime paintings of Winslow Homer. The city's steep decline following the end of the Atlantic fishery has been memorialized in pop culture as the backdrop for the semi-fictional novel and movie A Perfect Storm, and the nonfictional teenage "pregnancy pact" and soon-to-be released namesake Lifetime Original Movie. 

Note: TWIE readers can download the relevant official documents and local newspaper stories on this series at my first post on this subject. In addition, Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mitchell Chester released a letter explaining and defending his role, which can be found here.  For the most part, readers can corroborate my version of this mess by referring to these records. Where necessary, I will link to other sources.

There are no charter politics without an individual or group that wants to run its own public school. Although it is almost certain that those who want their own school don’t find their ideas of education reflected in the local school district, it doesn’t matter whether their preferences lean to the Republican party, conservatives, E.D. Hirsh, back-to-basics, and phonics, or the Democrats, liberals, the new math, Ted Sizer and project-based learning.  In almost every case, the local school board and teachers union will be opposed. It doesn’t matter whether the board is dominated by nominally Republican or Democrat members (the union is almost always tied to the Democratic party). The local school board’s opposition may be based on the impact of a new public school on the traditional systems budget, local - even personal - rivalries, views about “privatization,” a sense of entitlement to a monopoly, or a genuine doubt of the new group’s capacity. The politics of charter schools is the politics of control.

The local story of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School (GCACS) is no different. It starts as a battle over the area's dwindling resources between the city government and especially the school board, and what, in a study of the state's first charter schools, I noted as the "kitchen table" variety of community-based applicant. Public interest in an alternative public school goes back to at least 2001. In 2008, internet service owner Peter Van Ness organized a group of citizens to develop an application to demonstrate its capacity to start and maintain a high quality k-8 school based on the arts.

Gloucester’s school board opposed the proposed charter school. In this particular case the opponents’ strongest motivations seem to have been financial and operational - pretty much the usual reasons. The proposed school was projected to create a kind of “doughnut hole” in district enrollment. Massachusetts’ charter law provides districts with a three-year offset for state payments it would have received but for the charter school. However, Gloucester has been on a seventy-five year path of economic decline and no one sees good news on the horizon that might improve finances when the off-set ends.

At the state level, Massachusetts has adopted a byzantine system of governance for public education. Chartering authority lies exclusively with an eleven-member state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). The Board is part of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). DESE is led by a Commissioner appointed by the Governor and approved by BESE. The Commissioner, his counterparts leading Early and Higher Education, and the President of the University of Massachusetts system report to the Executive Office of Education, led by an appointed Secretary of Education. The Secretary reports to the Governor. The Commissioner and Secretary hold two seats on BESE. Citizens appointed by the Governor hold the remainder, including the board chair.

BESE is supported by DESE’s Charter Schools Office (CSO). CSO staff review charter applications, conduct the necessary due diligence, oversee charter compliance, and make recommendations to the Commissioner and Board. The office has a national reputation for quality, especially from the time that Scott Hamilton oversaw development its review process in the late 1990s. (Hamilton came from the Fordham Foundation and Edison and went on to become part of the new philanthropy, directing the Fisher Family (The Gap) giving, especially in KIPP.)

Local charter politics involves much "sturm und drang," is a boon to the local newspaper's circulation and, in Gloucester's case might be the stuff of a TV miniseries. But substantively, the GCACS application appears to have been a pretty straightforward matter. In every case the CSO staff faces two basic questions: 1) aside from the merits of the application, are there statutory reasons to bar a charter school; and 2) is the applicant qualified to start and operate the high-quality charter school intended by the legislature.

On the first matter, the Massachusetts statute left GCACS opponents with only two legitimate arguments: that the city’s population was small enough to trigger a requirement for a regional rather than purely local school and that the district’s offerings were sufficiently diverse that a competitive public school was not justified. Staff was persuaded of neither. On the second question, by all accounts the staff was never comfortable with the GCACS application on its own merits, and indeed was so sure of its position that it prepared the paperwork necessary to certify and implement a BESE decision to that effect.

Next: At the local level, and on the merits of the application,there's nothing particularly unique about the Gloucester story. Other things being equal - and whatever the local politics, GCACS should not have received a charter.  So how was the application approved? Look to the larger playing field.

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