Globe Editorial

A mistake, but nothing more - education chief should stay

September 24, 2009

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CALLS FOR the resignation of state Education Secretary Paul Reville over his handling of a charter school application in Gloucester are grossly out of proportion with his actions. Reville badly embarrassed himself and the Patrick administration through a careless Feb. 5 e-mail urging approval of a charter school in Gloucester. Even so, it would be a huge retreat for education reform in Massachusetts to jettison Reville for this misstep.

The February e-mail from Reville to Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester tells just part of the story. It urges Chester to back the Gloucester charter school - one of three applications - as a means, in part, to stay on the good side of pro-charter forces in the state, including “the Globe and the Boston Foundation.’’ Taken alone, it does read like a naked political calculation devoid of the merits of the application itself. Reville has only himself to blame for creating that perception.

But Chester, the state’s independent-minded commissioner, provides the rest of the story. Weeks before receiving the e-mail, he decided that the Gloucester proposal, which features an arts-rich curriculum for students in grades K-8, had significant merit. It was already known in education circles that Chester was poised to recommend approval of the school to the Board of Education in late February. Reville’s e-mail, offensive as it was, was intended to give greater impetus to Chester’s decision - not to push him to change course. In short, Chester denies being steamrolled by Reville or anyone else. And Chester has credibility.

Reville has egg on his face. He should wipe it off and get back to work on shaping the state’s overall education reform plan, of which charter schools are just a small part. His penchant for midnight e-mail musings shows that he isn’t the most politically astute player in the Patrick administration. But Reville, the former president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, has worked tirelessly both in and out of government to raise the level of the state’s underperforming schools. And he has been instrumental in crafting a proposed law that would do just that by raising the cap on charter schools for applicants with stellar records and allowing greater state intervention in chronically failing schools, including the overturning of collective bargaining contracts. That may explain, in part, why the long knives are out for him now.

Bottom line: Reville didn’t tilt the Gloucester charter school application. He made some sweeping political assumptions about what its passage would mean - assumptions that look stupid in retrospect, and he admits it. The denunciations in Gloucester and elsewhere verge on the hysterical. Reville’s record is too solid, and the threats to education reform too dire, for him to be pushed out over a clumsy e-mail.

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