, Gloucester, MA

September 21, 2009

Editorial: Ed chief's e-mail kills his, secretary's and charter's credibility

Well, the message sent by state Education Secretary Paul Reville to Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, as reported in Saturday's Times, sure provides the primary reason Chester apparently backed the application for the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School.

While we would have liked to have thought Chester, who reports to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Reville, the state education czar appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick, agreed that the Gloucester charter deserved approval on its merits, we know now that the state's two education chiefs seem to have given Gloucester the nod because:

They feared rejecting all three charter applications would have "crippled" them with "moderate" allies such as The Boston Globe and the Boston Foundation.

Reville's top priority was "positioning ourselves (the Patrick administration) so that we can be viable to implement the rest of our agenda." As Reville wrote, "we have to show some sympathy in this group of charters or we'll be permanently labeled as hostile."

Gloucester was the only choice left, given that Chester could not "stand behind" the application from Waltham, and Reville conceded he was "not inclined to push Worcester" — where, it turns out, he had two children in the Worcester public schools at the time of his appointment by the governor.

So, when Reville followed through with a state ed board vote that delivered the Gloucester charter, and Chester went against the recommendations of charter school experts in his own office, it apparently had little or nothing to do with the opportunity for a group of local education activists to create an independent Gloucester public school with multi-age classrooms and a curriculum based on the area's rich arts heritage. And it had nothing to do with the concerns of the planned charter school's critics — from virtually every school and city official to many Gloucester school parents — who cried long and loudly about how a public charter school would wreak financial havoc on the rest of the school district.

It had only to do with how these supposed public servants could execute out their best political tap-dance — without crossing the Boston Foundation or torquing off the Globe's editorial writers, without standing up for a charter within Reville's own Worcester school system, and without forcing the Patrick administration to come clean regarding its education "agenda," which — no doubt due to the teachers' unions — has been all over the charter and "Readiness" map.

Perhaps the saddest thing about the Reville-to-Chester e-mail — sent just 6 minutes before midnight on Feb. 5, while Chester was apparently in Arizona — is that it's really no surprise. Even the simplest political observer recognized that the state's education leaders would be wary of rejecting all three charter applications at a time when President Obama was promising more money for charter schools. And with Chester declining to recommend either Waltham or Worcester, it seemed a certainty he'd back the Gloucester plan — which he did, eight days after receiving the Reville e-mail. With the governor's office and Education Commissioner both squarely behind the Gloucester proposal, it seemed also seemed a cinch at the state board level, even though it would need Reville's own in-absentia vote to carry.

But the fact is, with the state board due to meet Tuesday to consider changes in the charter process, the board must now also revisit the entire Gloucester charter proposal. And both Chester and Reville should remove themselves from the entire process — and their positions. Gloucester Superintendent Christopher Farmer noted that the Reville e-mail "shatters the credibility of the Secretary of Education and the commissioner...." And he's absolutely right.

Reville's and Chester's orchestration of this decision to merely carry out a political "agenda" is grossly unfair to all of those involved. That now includes the charter school backers who have worked hard to come up with a viable alternative education program, only to find themselves and their school — through no fault of their own — under the darkest and slimiest of Massachusetts bureaucratic and political clouds. It's worth noting that Reville told Chester, "I gather that you think the best candidate is Gloucester."

But seven months later, Reville's message to Chester still cries out for a reply. Here's ours:

"Paul, given your admissions regarding the Gloucester charter school application, and Mitchell's going against the recommendations of his own staff, it is clear that neither you, Mitchell nor the charter decision process have any credibility regarding this approval. You and Mitchell should resign immediately, and the state education board should reopen the process for approving of the charter applications from Waltham, Worcester and Gloucester, based solely on their merits."

We can only hope for a quick response.