It's clear that there are now some storm clouds gathering over the charter school movement across the state — let alone over a proposal for a Gloucester Community Arts Charter School. And that may be bringing some quiet relief to school and city officials who have railed against the local application.
Regardless of how the Gloucester charter group's application fares on the state level over the first six weeks of the new year, the fact is, local school officials, even if the Gloucester charter is rejected, should look closely at some of the needs this proposal has spotlighted. For if local officials simply greet a potential rejection or moratorium on this and other charter proposals as a sign they should merely continue along their current educational course, they'll be making a big mistake.
Even if this charter fails to gain state approval, the reality is that Gloucester schools need to do something to stop the exodus that's already costing city taxpayers an estimated $1.4 million a year for school choice. And the charter application provides the ideal impetus to tackle that problem.
The Gloucester charter proposal remains among three on the table awaiting state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester's recommendation and the ultimate decision in February from the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. But there now seems to be growing pressure for a "moratorium" on any new charters. And even statewide charter school backers — like Dominic Slowey, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Association for Charter Public Schools — acknowledge that Gov. Deval Patrick's administration is now sending "mixed signals" about charter school support.
Indeed, Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Education, said last week that the economic turmoil on state finances is "forcing us to take a deeper look" at charters with an eye toward fiscal restraint. The Mass. Municipal Association, headed this year by Gloucester Council President Bruce Tobey, has called for a "moratorium" on charters. And, to complicate things more, the Patrick administration is looking at a comprehensive education plan that could include "Readiness Schools," an alternative that seems ill-defined, except that such schools might work more within, rather than independent from, a school district.
As all of this moves forward, there are some key points to keep in mind.
First, if new "Readiness" schools operate within school districts, and that means unionized teachers, that may be a problem. One attraction of charter schools is that it encourages innovative and progressive teachers who are willing to work without adherence to unionized work rules.
Second, you'll notice that virtually all of the arguments against charter schools — especially in Gloucester, where Superintendent Christopher Farmer, Mayor Carolyn Kirk and many others have taken aggressive stands against the application — focus squarely on cost. There is obviously a context to that, and a concern that diverting funds to an "outside the box" charter school could leave other children behind. After the declining level of reimbursement to the city over the charter's first three years, the charter school's funding would then come through the district's state aid, and both the mayor and Farmer have pegged that as a "loss" of $2.4 million annually.
But there are questions as to whether that's a "net" loss, since it would be funding Gloucester students attending a Gloucester public, albeit charter, school. And while considering the governor's Readiness Project, state officials are also looking at whether changes to the reimbursement system could better advance the charter format.
What hasn't been discussed a lot is the educational format of a potential Gloucester charter school — and that's where city and school officials should be directing their attention. One core proposal, for example, is a plan to educate children in a "multi-age" format, perhaps including children of both kindergarten and first grade in one classroom, those in Grades 2-3, and so on. That's a good idea built on the recognition different children learn at different paces. Similarly, the charter school would host weekly — or even more regular — visits by parents to classrooms, involving the entire family in the child's education. That obviously might not work for every family, but it's a good concept.
Those are just a few ideas that Gloucester's public schools can draw from the charter application to invigorate the local school system before or even without having its hand forced through a charter approval. And they are innovative, progressive steps that may make Gloucester's schools more desirable for families who — according to the school choice statistics — clearly can't wait to send their kids to Rockport, Manchester Essex or elsewhere.
With or without a charter — and certainly without a flood of additional local tax dollars — Gloucester officials need to make city schools work for more local families. Looking at the charter application just might be a good place to start.