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Amherst, Northampton school committees oppose Chinese charter school expansion

  • Richard Alcorn, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Tuesday in front of the school in Hadley. SARAH CROSBY

  • Amherst Regional Middle School Building



Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2017

Citing both a drain on financial resources and potentially increasing segregation of historically underserved students, the Amherst School Committee will send a letter to the state’s education board opposing a near doubling of enrollment at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley.

The committee, by a 4-0 vote Thursday evening, agreed to oppose the recommendation from Mitchell D. Chester, the education commissioner, for the charter school to add 452 students to its current 471-student enrollment.

In its letter, the committee wrote, “Charter schools are public schools mandated to serve all students regardless of race, ethnicity, disability status or economic status, among other demographic indicators. PVCICS is currently not meeting that mandate. Expanding the school is not in the best interest of all students, particularly those who are most underserved in the commonwealth and most vulnerable in our current education system.”

The committee went on to describe its “grave concerns” that the charter school, rather than providing an alternative for disadvantaged students trapped in underperforming districts, is instead taking students from a more privileged population in schools where students are doing well.

“A vote to allow for the expansion of PVCICS will further exacerbate the segregation of students with disabilities, ELL (English Language Learners) students, and African-American and Latino students in our region,” the committee wrote, pointing to statistics that show a subgroup of disabled make up about 19½ percent of the overall student population of Amherst, but less than 6 percent of those enrolled at the charter school.

The Northampton School Committee also met Thursday night and approved a letter to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education opposing the charter school’s expansion on some of the same grounds. The committee wrote that, under the current funding mechanism, the goals of “equity and excellence” would be better served by maintaining the school’s current enrollment cap.

Amherst Committee Chairwoman Katherine Appy said her board’s letter is not about the successes or failures at the charter school, but about how such schools are funded and the significant budget cuts Amherst schools would have to make if state educational aid is lost.

Committee member Eric Nakajima said he is puzzled why Chester reversed course from last year, when the expansion was denied. That has not been explained, Nakajima said.

Leverett resident Nancy Grossman presented statistics showing that 145 students from the four towns that make up the regional school district are losing $1.4 million to the charter school. Even just a handful more going there would be devastating.

“Two or three students, and we have a teacher salary right there,” Grossman said.

Acting School Superintendent Michael Morris and the Amherst Select Board are sending their own letters. Morris said he plans to be at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. Monday in Malden.

Several parents also called and sent emails to the state education department, as well as state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, and state Reps. Solomon Goldstein-Rose and Stephen Kulik, whose districts include the four primary affected towns.

Goldstein-Rose wrote in a Facebook post Thursday afternoon that he was passing on the messages, but noted that the charter school expansion is not a legislative decision.

Even though he praised the work the charter school does, like others, he said, he is troubled with how it is funded.

“I have introduced a bill that would fix charter school funding, shifting it to the state and ensuring that our local district schools play no role in funding charter schools,” Goldstein-Rose wrote.

“Unfortunately I doubt this will pass until we have enough new revenue (that part of the bill would amount to giving district schools $440 million more per year).”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.