This may have happened already here in Massachusetts. While you were meeting with our state’s Secretary of Education Paul Reville in Washington D.C. on February 24, 2009, an aide took his place on the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and cast Secretary Reville’s vote in favor of creating a new charter school in my city, Gloucester.
Ordinarily, the vote would have been unremarkable. A few charter applications are approved or rejected by the state Board every year. It has been no ordinary year.
The Massachusetts Charter School Office, nationally regarded for the quality of its independent evaluation process, had recommended that none of this year’s three finalists be granted a charter; all three were encouraged to reapply. Mitchell Chester, our Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, overruled their evaluation of the Gloucester school – something he neglected to mention to the state Board when he recommended that they grant the charter.
Those three negative evaluations had posed a problem for Secretary Reville’s team. In the coming race for federal dollars, Massachusetts would be judged on, among other things, its support for charter schools. For Massachusetts to be a serious contender, the Secretary and Governor Patrick would need public and legislative support for their education agenda.
Three weeks before the February 24 vote, Secretary Reville sent Commissioner Chester an email message:
“I appreciated our talk today and your openness and flexibility. This situation presents one of those painful dilemmas. In addition to being a no-win situation, it forces us into a political cul de sac where we could be permanently trapped. Our reality is that we have to show some sympathy in this group of charters or we’ll get permanently labeled as hostile and they will cripple us with a number of key moderate allies like the Globe and the Boston Foundation. Frankly, I’d rather fight for the kids in the Waltham situation, but it sounds like you can’t find a solid basis for standing behind that one. I’m not inclined to push Worcester, so that leaves Gloucester. My inclination is to think that you, I and the Governor all need to send at least one positive signal in this batch, and I gather that you think the best candidate is Gloucester. Can you see your way clear to supporting it? Would you want to do the financial trigger even in light of likely stimulus aid?
Thanks for not seeing this as an independence issue. It really is a matter of positioning ourselves so that we can be viable to implement the rest of our agenda. It’s a tough but I think necessary pill to swallow.”
Yes, Secretary Reville actually put this in writing.
The state Board did vote to grant the charter, but some people suspected the fix was in. Procedural steps seemed to have been glossed over or even skipped. Reporters and private citizens started asking questions. The email I mentioned along with the negative evaluations of the three charter finalists all surfaced.
A state legislative oversight committee issued a harsh public criticism of how the Gloucester charter application was handled. The Governor twice asked the state Board to reconsider their decision to grant the charter and twice was rebuffed; meanwhile his campaign coordinator for Gloucester resigned in protest. Two weeks ago, our Inspector General opened a formal investigation of what went on since millions of state dollars will need to be spent to open this school. It’s been a mess Mr. Secretary.
So, be on the alert as you judge your contest. It’s a big sack of money you have, and even good men and women might find themselves crossing moral lines – if not ethical or legal ones – in order to get their hands in that bag. If that happens, a lot of time and money will be spent cleaning up the mess, rather than improving public education.
U.S. Senator John Kerry
U.S. Senator Paul Kirk
U.S. Representative John Tierney
Massachusetts Senate President Therese Murray
Massachusetts State Senator Robert O’Leary
Massachusetts State Senator Bruce Tarr
Massachusetts Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo
Massachusetts State Representative Martha Walz
Massachusetts State Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante