“[A] whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” reads Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick, which was famously inspired by New Bedford’s whaling industry.
In an acrimonious plot straight from Melville, New Bedford’s mayor is fighting the expansion of a high-performing K-8 charter public school named Alma del Mar (“Soul of the Sea”), located in the Whaling City.
Currently enrolling 440 students, Alma is seeking two new K-8 schools, which would serve 1,188 more pupils. This fall, state officials will decide if Alma can move forward to an early 2019 final approval that would accommodate the hundreds of children on the school’s waitlist.
Charter public schools are part of the historic 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA), which has made our students globally competitive. Celebrating its 25th anniversary, MERA established charters to give poor and minority families access to higher-quality school choices the more affluent have long enjoyed.
Today, Massachusetts has 82 charters serving 45,000 mostly disadvantaged kids. Charters have successfully bridged race- and class-based achievement gaps, attracted a 30,000-student waitlist, and made themselves the mighty whales of education reform.
New Bedford is the fourth-lowest-performing school system in Massachusetts.
Moby-Dick “speaks… frankly about the crisis of human intelligence and consciousness,” the late novelist E.L. Doctorow observed. There are important parallels here with Bay State education battles.
A decade of gold-standard studies from Harvard, MIT, Duke, and Stanford has repeatedly shown that our best-in-the-nation charter schools are no fluke. The empirical evidence is clear: Massachusetts charters close more than 90 percent of the performance gap between rich and poor kids. Nevertheless, municipal officials and teacher unions alike have relentlessly hunted these magnificent schools.
Students from every ZIP Code should know Moby-Dick is a sea disaster story. It’s a tragic tale about Captain Ahab’s ambition and crazed vengeance against the legendary white whale that severed his leg and scarred his soul. Only the narrator, Ishmael, survives as Ahab’s catastrophic crusade dooms his ship and entire crew.
Moby-Dick’s lessons should alert us to misguided skippers and the perilous consequences of New Bedford’s struggling school district.
Mayor Jon Mitchell is a Harvard-educated politician who was among the federal lawyers who prosecuted notorious crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger. Mitchell’s biography also says: “He… hails from a local fishing family… whose name is inscribed at the Seamen’s Bethel among local fisherman lost to the sea.”
Not long ago, Mitchell was an idealistic reformer who gushed about Alma del Mar at its ribbon-cutting ceremony. Now, this four-term mayor is an establishment politician looking for any port in the storm.
That’s because, after his six years chairing a dysfunctional school committee and spending over a billion dollars in state aid, the New Bedford Public Schools remain an educational shipwreck.
The district is the fourth-lowest-performing school system in Massachusetts. Mitchell himself previously called it “a mess,” while Pia Durkin, the SOS superintendent brought in to right the ship, abruptly resigned last year. There has been persistent talk about the need for state receivership.
But Mitchell is too wily a sea captain to let this boatload of scholastic whale blubber sink his lofty ambitions. Long rumored to be interested in statewide office, he’s deflecting attention from his weak education record and pandering to the special interests dedicated to making charter schools an endangered species.
Instead of focusing on the real mission of providing all New Bedford kids with better school options, Mitchell has become fixated on halting Alma del Mar’s growth. He boasts that he can manipulate the state’s charter school expansion process against Alma, as he recites the establishment’s red-herring claims about how charter schools drain money from his city.
“All visible objects… are but as pasteboard masks,” Melville writes. “[S]trike, strike through the mask!”
Here’s the fiscal reality: Since 1994, the state has funded 85 percent of New Bedford Public Schools’ costs, which since 2000 alone have totaled $2.2 billion. Over the last decade, the Commonwealth has also paid an additional $18.5 million to the city in charter school reimbursements for students who have already left its chronically-underperforming district schools.
Mayor Mitchell’s political ambition is the main reason he’s flinging harpoons at charter schools. State policymakers should ignore Mitchell’s theatrics and endorse the educational aspirations of the hundreds of New Bedford schoolchildren on Alma del Mar’s waitlist.
Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.