, Gloucester, MA

January 7, 2013

Editorial: Adults deal charter kids harsh civics lesson

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Today marks the start of the final week for the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School.

The school that opened under a bureaucratic cloud, but with a group of parents and an executive director committed to providing a winning education alternative for Gloucester kids and their families, will close its doors for good this Friday, thanks to perpetual budget crunches and enrollment shortfalls that have plagued the school from its start – and thanks to a local Board of Trustees that has ultimately failed those kids and parents and a state Department of Education that failed to provide the proper oversight when desperately needed.

But while some city school teachers, officials and parents will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief that this competing educational entity is now committed to history, they and our state education leaders should think long and hard about the civics lesson they’ve been teaching the charter school’s students since State Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester first sounded the alarms in November about pulling the plug.

For the real lesson is that the kids and the families caught in this sudden shutdown really don’t matter – that they’re merely political pawns in a state financial shell game. And now that the state no longer needs the school — as it clearly once did – Chester and other so-called education leaders, including the GCACS trustees have no qualms about kicking it to the curb, forcing the more than 100 families who hoped to at least complete the year at the school to find another place to learn on less than two weeks notice. That’s unconscionable.

There are, as we have noted in the past, all sorts of reasons for the charter school’s ultimate failure — primarily within the school’s own Board of Trustees. Inflated enrollment figures, and prospective budgets and staff hirings based on those numbers, have constantly forced the school into enrollment shortfalls and thus — under the state’s per-pupil allocation system for charter schools — into mid-year budget crises at every turn. And then there has been the almost perpetual undermining of the school by city parents and others who have actively discouraged families from placing their children in the charter school’s programs — programs that showed gains this past year on the state’s MCAS standardized test scores, and a school learning and social school environment that has clearly worked for the vast majority of students and their families.

But even if the state was bent on pulling the school’s charter at the end of the current year — as Chester initially signaled — there remains no excuse for a Board of Trustees to announce on Jan. 2 it would shut down in nine days. While it was long past time for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to have stepped in and provided the kind of oversight the local trustees needed, state officials should have at least guaranteed the financial support to get through to June, when students and families could have at least had time to seek alternatives, or ease back into city schools in an orderly transition.

By all counts, city schools officials, teachers and even students are all welcoming charter kids into their classrooms — as Mayor Carolyn Kirk’s story about her daughter already making “a new friend” from the charter school indicated in Saturday’s “Mayor’s Desk” column. But, as charter parents tell their kids how and why their school – a school most of the have come to love – is closing, they should do so recognizing that they should someday know the truth. And the condensed lesson of the day can read something like this:

In 2009, the state had to show the federal government that it was being “progressive” and deserving of new federal “Race to the Top” money, yet they didn’t have a viable charter application. So they picked perhaps the closest thing to it — the application from Gloucester. Now, with 11 new proposals already in the hopper for the coming year and 2014, the state Department of Ed no longer needs the Gloucester charter – or the political headaches that have come with it. So it can shut it down. And city schools can grab the charter’s money – even though the school brought Race to the Top funds to Gloucester, and more state dollars through reimbursement for the GCACS.

The kids? The families? The school? Who cares, right?

This was never about the kids, and always about state education dollars.

That’s a pretty harsh lesson in political science, but it’s one these students and families have learned the hard way.