Chester defends charter school vetting process

MALDEN, MASS., FEB. 24, 2015….Moments before the Massachusetts Board of Education voted to approve two new charter schools in Springfield and Salem, Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester lashed back at critics who questioned his handling of charter applications in other cities that did not receive approval.

“I am taking everybody to task who has taken me to task,” Chester said during a board meeting Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Chester recommended the board approve Horace Mann charters for the Bentley Academy Charter School in Salem and the UP Academy Charter School in Springfield, while at the same time he did not recommend the Academy of the Whole Child Charter School in the Fitchburg area and the New Heights Charter School in Brockton.

The Fitchburg and Brockton charter schools drew opposition from local district school officials, who argued their districts’ academic achievements made the charter schools unnecessary.

Charter school advocates say this is the first time in nearly a decade that a Commonwealth charter school has not been approved in the state.

Horace Mann charter schools differ from Commonwealth Charter schools, operating in cooperation with host school districts and requiring local school committee approval.

Chester said he was “quite concerned” that people had thanked him for not bringing the two Commonwealth charter applications forward, as well as those who criticized him for not recommending them.

All four applications went through a thorough vetting process, Chester said. “If they had met the bar, I would be recommending for approval,” he said, referring to the Fitchburg and Brockton charter applicants.

The Salem charter school will open in 2015, serving 350 students in kindergarten to fifth grade, and the Springfield school will open in 2016 serving up to 800 students in grades six through eight.

Chester mentioned a Boston Herald editorial published Monday with the title “Chester needs to go,” in which the paper said he “has been guilty of politicizing the selection process in the past – a past that makes his current actions just as suspect.” The editorial went on to call for Gov. Charlie Baker to replace him.

Chester does not report to the governor, but to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which includes gubernatorial appointees. Baker supports charter school expansion, and appointed James Peyser, a charter proponent, as state education secretary.

Baker told reporters Tuesday afternoon, “Mitchell works for the board and I think the board ultimately gets to make the call with respect to those sorts of things.”

Chester also said he was disappointed by statements Massachusetts Charter Public School Association Executive Director Marc Kenen made about the Fitchburg and Brockton proposals.

“I reject the notion that Brockton and Fitchburg are failing school districts,” Chester said.

In a statement on Feb. 13, Kenen said, “Local elected and school officials in those communities, who mounted vigorous campaigns against these proposals, may celebrate this decision, but there are no winners when low-income parents are left with no choices other than failing district schools.”

Last fall, the Brockton and Fitchburg charter applications became tangled by a state law that requires the first two Commonwealth Charter schools in any given year be licensed in the bottom 10 percent of school districts.

The Brockton and Fitchburg proposals – two districts that bumped up in performance – were the only ones that made it into the final round of consideration.

The board later granted a waiver for the New Heights application to move forward in the approval process when Chester cited “exceptional” circumstances. Officials from the Academy of the Whole Child in the Fitchburg region withdrew their waiver request.

On Tuesday, Kenen called this year’s charter school application vetting process “indicative of a troubling trend of slower charter growth – the result of a web of legislative and regulatory constraints and a toxic environment created by local officials, who demonize educators and concerned parents who are trying to bring high quality public educational options to their communities.”

Kenen called on Baker to act quickly to lift caps on charters and urged the governor to “promote a dialogue that no longer pits one type of public school against another,” adding, “In the final years of the Patrick Administration, decisions were made not to pursue legislation to lift charter enrollment caps – even in the state’s lowest performing districts. In addition, changes were made in regulations that shifted the focus of charter growth away from large underperforming urban districts to smaller, rural districts that are not likely targets for charter development.”

[Gintautas Dumcius contributed reporting]

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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