A charter school is coming to Gloucester.
That's no longer the hope of charter organizers — and it's no longer the apparent worst fear of city and school officials. It's the reality — and it's one that officials and parents alike should begin to embrace.
Yes, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's vote to approve the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School was a 6-5 split. But that came after plenty of opponents had their say, both at Tuesday's hearing in Malden, and over the past six months, when local school and city officials argued that a charter would drain desperately needed money from the district's schools. In the end, the state panel — including Secretary of Education Paul Reville, and following the recommendation of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester —agreed to grant the Gloucester-based group the only charter issued in the state this year. That indicates Gloucester's charter applicants demonstrated a need; it also shows the strength of the proposal that organizers such as parent and educator Amy Ballin, state education worker Dave Buchanan and local businessman Peter Van Ness pulled together.
So the key now is for both sides to work to ensure that, as local charter school board chairman Van Ness says, this innovative education proposal will work for all of Gloucester's students.
First, it's time city and school officials recognize the funding situation need not be as dire as they perceive. The state will compensate the School Department for the loss of students who go to the charter school in a declining reimbursement schedule over three years. And while, at the end of those three years, officials predict that they will get $2.4 million less in state aid because of the charter school, they will also be educating fewer students.
If Mayor Carolyn Kirk is correct when she complains that the charter school's prospective 240 students will be getting an "elite education ... at the expense of the other 3,200," that's an indictment of district schools, not a reason to reject the charter. Access to the charter school is via a lottery that will be open to all — not just the perceived "elite." And as we noted previously, there's no reason district schools can't borrow educational ideas from the charter curriculum and create a level playing field for all. That's one of the charter program's benefits.
One important difference, of course, is accountability. If a charter school fails to educate its students, it is forced to close. Often, if a district school fails to educate its students, it gets more money, with remedial and other taxpayer-funded programs.
It's also important to note that a charter school is a public school. It operates differently — it is not hamstrung in most cases by the teacher union rules that govern the district's existing public schools — but its students are still required to pass the MCAS.
Yes, this charter will mean changes for Gloucester's overall school district. But let's remember this is a district already hemorrhaging students to neighboring districts through school choice - a net outflow of 171, at a cost of nearly $1 million, this year alone. The charter school will offer all parents and students a new alternative to remain in the city, and deserves a chance to succeed.
The attitude from officials so far, at least rhetorically, is encouraging. Superintendent Christopher Farmer, while pronouncing himself "deeply disappointed" at the state board's vote, added that he and the School Committee would work to "move forward with the aim of improving the quality and range of opportunities we are able to provide for Gloucester's children ..."
Meanwhile, Van Ness said he hopes to work collaboratively with the school administration in moving forward. "Our goal is to improve performance for every student in Gloucester," he said.
That, indeed, should be the goal of everyone involved in public education. And if a charter school can move things in that direction — spurring changes within the other Gloucester schools' curriculum, and bringing more educational innovations — this charter will be well worth the investment, by the state, the city and the community at large.
Tuesday's decision means, once and for all, it's time for city and school officials and others to stop fighting the charter school proposal. It's time to embrace it — and find out just how indeed it can bring about better education for all the city's children.