Charter Schools Debate in New Bedford and Fall River

Katya Starostina, Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

On Decemeber 18th, the class of LeadershipSouthCoast met with Meg Mayo Brown, Superintendent of Fall River School District, as well as several staff of Doran Elementary School, and Dr. Steve Furtado, the Executive Director, and a few other staff of the Global Leadership Public Charter School in New Bedford. Some of the content below was discussed on that day.

The debate about the success of charter schools and their impact on traditional public schools has persisted for quite some time. Charter schools originated as innovative centers of learning that explored best practices in order to help the neediest students and serve as models for other public schools. Now, some argue that this is no longer the case. Because of the lottery opt-in enrollment, which requires parents to fill out an application, and stricter policies on academic achievement, the anti-charter movement blames charter schools for selective bias and eliminating the most challenged population as a means to achieving success.

However, charter schools are known for raising the standard and achieving significantly better results than traditional public schools, which may mean refusing to practice social promotion and holding students responsible for their academic performance. According to a 2013 study on charter school performance in Massachusetts by the Center of Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), on average students in charter schools make larger learning gains in both reading and mathematics than those in traditional schools. In addition, students in Boston charter schools have significantly larger learning gains in both reading and mathematics, having the largest average growth rate in math and reading CREDO has seen in any city or state thus far.

Most of all, this debate has produced a sizable conflict between tradition and charter school districts. On one side, traditional schools claim that charter schools take away funds from the already tight budgets – money that is needed to administer a district even when those students are not there. However, traditional schools get refunded the full amount for first year and 25 percent for the next five years. Charter schools also receive a smaller tuition amount per pupil and are not allowed to dip into state grants for their facilities. The school choice movement argues that introducing charter schools creates competition that would cause low-performing districts to improve their performance.

Nonetheless, an article by EducationNext has found that while in the past, most traditional school districts have responded with indifference or even hostility, now there is a broadening of responses and even partnerships forming with school choice providers. In Fall River, for example, Principal Maria Pontes flew to NYC to learn best practices from a Harlem Children’s Zone charter schools, which she implemented at the Doran Elementary School. Subsequently, under Maria’s leadership, the school progressed from Level 4 to Level 2.

On the national level, the Obama administration has put pressure to relax limits on charter school expansion. In 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that “States that do not have public charter laws or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools will jeopardize their applications under the Race to the Top Fund.” Soon after, Governor Patrick introduced the Readiness legislation (H. 4163), which rose the state’s charter cap from 9 percent to 18 percent in the lowest 10 percent of districts, as measured by combined Composite Performance Index scores on the English and math MCAS exams. Charter cap refers to the maximum percentage that the charter tuition can comprise of the net school spending (NSS) of a school district, thereby limiting the number of students that charter schools can enroll. According to an article by MassInc, the new legislation expands the charter cap in 23 districts, including most of the Gateway Cities, which serve 25 percent of all Massachusetts public school students and the neediest student populations of the state.

Below is a comparison of seven major Gateway Cities in FY10, when the charter cap was nine percent, with FY14, after charter cap was raised. The bar graph shows the growth of charter tuition as a percentage of net school spending in these cities. It can be seen that Fall River and New Bedford have been lagging behind the rest of the cities in establishing charter schools.

charter schools blog

(Click the graph to enlarge)

City Administration of New Bedford has been critical of charter schools, as the previous and current Mayor have advised against approval of charter school proposals submitted to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Global Learning Charter Pubic School of New Bedford has had a significant decrease in enrollment in high school grades. Executive Director Steve Furtado explains that their students are not allowed to participate in New Bedford High athletic program and some choose to attend there instead. A social worker from Global Learning stated that while their students should have access to play sports at New Bedford High, the high school has not agreed to allow that to happen. Still, the school is currently at capacity of 500 students and has had to turn away already-enrolled students from continuing on to the high school. Hence, it is seeking to lift their enrollment cap to be able to expand. With a new charter school City on a Hill opening in FY15, New Bedford will increase its charter tuition but will still be under nine percent of NSS, far from the new 18 percent cap.

In Fall River, Superintendent Meg Mayo Brown supports charter schools but says she is a minority among her colleagues. She stated that teachers from Durfee High have pressured school committee to shut down proposals for a second high school. As such, numerous proposals have been rejected. One of the examples is Argosy Collegiate Charter School, which submitted another proposal for FY15. Argosy, along with New Heights Charter School, which also submitted a proposal to open in FY15, is waiting for the decision on the proposal to come in February. Atlantis Charter School, the only charter school in Fall River, is seeking an expansion of their enrollment from 795 to 1,400.

Nationally and across the state, there has been a movement to plant more charter schools in the lowest performing cities as a way to offer additional school choice to low-income and minority students and present alternative education models in troubled school districts. However, it seems that in New Bedford and Fall River, two chronically underperforming districts, opposition to charter schools is quite high. Both cities have limited options for parent who are seeking an alternative to traditional public schools for their children. A parent of a student enrolled in the Atlantis Charter School commented that the acceptance rate of the school in 2007 was lower than that of Harvard University that year. This example demonstrates how limiting those options truly are for parents and children in Fall River, and likely in New Bedford.

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