“Education… means emancipation. It means light and liberty,” the 19th century African-American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass said. “It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free.”
Last year marked the bicentennial of Douglass’s birth, as well as the 180th anniversary of his arrival in New Bedford, Massachusetts, his first home after fleeing slavery in Maryland. Once safely on the south coast, Frederick “Bailey” (as he was called as a slave) changed his surname to “Douglass,” finally received wages for his labor, started his family, and launched his career as an orator and anti-slavery crusader.
He came to the “Whaling City” because New Bedford was among America’s most open and prosperous commercial seaports. Its oil lighted the world and the city served as a beacon to antebellum abolitionists and social reform movements.
But that was then and this is now. As the Wall Street Journal reported last fall, New Bedford’s 440-student, demonstrably successful Alma del Mar Charter School met bitter resistance from the local political establishment when it sought to expand and serve 1,188 additional students.
To resolve the dispute, Jeffrey Riley, the state education commissioner, has brokered an unprecedented deal. Alma will be allowed to expand by 450 children, yet will only draw students from the neighborhoods around multiple pre-existing, underperforming New Bedford public schools. This valiant compromise is to be applauded, although deviating from the state’s charter lottery process could have unintended consequences, including risking the rights of the 563 kids still on Alma’s waitlist.
This compromise was necessitated by a campaign by Mayor Jon Mitchell, the school committee, and their teachers’ union allies to block Alma’s well-earned expansion. Eschewing the openness that made New Bedford a safe harbor in 19th-century America, these cynical vested interests depart from Douglass’s historic legacy in their city.
It’s easier for municipal government to scapegoat a small, thriving public charter school than to improve the performance of the city’s failing district schools. Rather than representing the interests of all schoolchildren, city officials falsely claim that charter schools “drain” money from their school district.
For the last 25 years, New Bedford Public Schools have received approximately 85 percent of their K-12 educational dollars from the state, which, since fiscal year 2000 alone, constituted $2.2 billion. Over the last decade, the state has paid an additional $18.5 million to the city in charter school reimbursements for students no longer attending its chronically underperforming schools.
After all that state money, New Bedford’s school district, with 45 percent of its high schoolers chronically absent, is the fourth-lowest performing public school system in Massachusetts. It would be interesting to know how many students at New Bedford High School are actually taught either Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” or any of Douglass’s three autobiographies–books by authors for whom the city is famous.
Tellingly, the two best-performing educational options there–Alma del Mar Elementary and Middle School and Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School–are outside the control of the mayor and his school committee.
“Power concedes nothing,” Douglass advised. “It never did and it never will.”
In spite of Massachusetts’s generally wealthy and well-educated population, Beacon Hill’s political class routinely sides with powerful teachers’ unions and the adults employed by the K-12 educational establishment over the dreams of poor students of color trapped in chronically underperforming urban schools.
For example, even though research from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and Duke University has repeatedly demonstrated that Boston charter schools are the best in the country at bridging achievement gaps, for nearly two decades, charter supporters have learned over and over again how implacable the entrenched special interests remain.
“To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature,” Douglass said. What was true then is even truer in the exponentially more competitive 21st-century global economy.
When local elected officials scheme to deprive urban kids of better access to high-performing charter schools like Alma del Mar–which delivers on the promise of literacy, numeracy, and a pathway to college–it’s tantamount to trying to consign schoolchildren to a future of hardship and disenfranchisement.