The Perfect Storm in Gloucester

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We have long lamented the politicization of education policy broadly, but especially on charter schools, since the creation of the position of the Education Secretary and the packing of the board of education.

Think back to the decision to kill off a great charter application in the Brockton area for purely political reasons. Or consider how the 21st-century skills agenda moved forward in the MCAS contract without any board approval. Looking for reminders? Okay, try here, here, here, and here, as well as a number of reports, op-eds, etc., which I will not list out.

All of this is the lead-up to the perfect storm in Gloucester, where the Gloucester Times notes, with charity, 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…

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.

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.

What is striking to an outsider observer is that Reville thought that charters can thrive if politicized. The core strength of charters in Massachusetts — and why they are for on average much better than
their counterparts in other states — is that we had objective authorization and accountability (even closure) processes. What a mess the Secretary and the Commissioner have made. What a mess the Governor has made of our nation-leading educational reform.

The Gloucester Times is right to question whether the Worcester charter proposal, which many considered the best of the lot this year, was in fact denied for political reasons (Reville and LG Murray hail from Worcester). The Times is also right to say the following:

[S]even 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.