Boston Herald: Give proven providers a fair shot

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By Jim Stergios and Charles Chieppo

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

February is the time when new charter schools are approved in Massachusetts. But too often of late, political considerations have taken precedence over the opportunity charters provide for the commonwealth’s urban families.

The next round of charter selections offers a chance to atone for perhaps the most egregious example of politics trumping kids.

Since the first Massachusetts charter school opened in 1995, only one charter proposal endorsed by the state’s education commissioner has ever been rejected by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. That was in 2008, when the board rejected the International Charter School of Southeastern Massachusetts.

Local officials waged a fierce battle against the school leading up to the February 2008 board meeting. Reacting to the pressure, then-board chair Paul Reville seized on questions raised by a three-year-old Department of Elementary and Secondary Education letter to push for rejection. A subsequent DESE letter indicated the problems had been rectified, but Reville never allowed it to be presented.

Brockton-area students were the big losers that day. The school would have been managed by Sabis, a company that manages two other Massachusetts charter schools, one of which is in Springfield.

Last year marked the 11th consecutive year that every graduate of the Sabis International Charter School was accepted to college. More than half the 126-member class qualified for the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship, which provides a four-year tuition waiver to any public university in the state. Both Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report have recognized it as one of the nation’s best high schools.

When a 2010 state law raised the cap on charter schools that can be approved for low-performing school districts provided the new schools are operated by “proven providers,” you would think Sabis is who they had in mind.

But Sabis happens to be a for-profit company. State law prohibits granting charters to for-profit entities, but charter schools can contract with for-profits for management services.

As a result of their for-profit status, Sabis has faced an unnecessarily difficult road in Massachusetts. Last year, approval was given for a Sabis-managed school to be located in Lowell, but another Springfield Sabis school was rejected.

Among the schools that have been named finalists for the selections to be made in February is another one in Brockton that would be managed by Sabis. Reville, now secretary of education, remains a member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Several who went along with the 2008 travesty are also still on the board.

In practical terms, “for-profit” vs. “nonprofit” is often a distinction without a difference. Instead of meaningless categorizations, board members should focus on what is best for Brockton students.

If Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester recommends the International Charter School of Brockton for approval this February, Reville and company will have a shot at redemption. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he said “there are no second acts in American lives.”

Jim Stergios is executive director and Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.

Read this article in the Boston Herald