BOSTON (SHNS) – The state education board approved a charter for a new school in Worcester on Tuesday, despite opposition from school committee officials, the city’s legislative delegation, and Secretary of Education Patrick Tutwiler.

Opponents alleged that the proposed Worcester Cultural Academy will take $7 million away from the Worcester Public School system, and will exclude students from diverse backgrounds and students with disabilities. Supporters said the school will offer a needed alternative to city students and parents.

The board voted in favor of the charter 7-4, with Tutwiler and members Darlene Lombos of Boston, Eric Plankey of Westford, and Mary Ann Stewart of Lexington voting in opposition.

Students at the school, which is scheduled to open in August 2023 for 200 kindergartens through 4th-grade students and then expand to enroll a total of 360 students in grades K-8, will spend parts of their typical school week taking lessons at museums and other cultural institutions.

The school will be run through a partnership with Old Sturbridge Village, a 19th-century living history museum in the town of Sturbridge in southern Worcester county. It will adopt a curriculum developed by national education nonprofit EL Education, which says it uses a “comprehensive, standards-based literacy program that engages teachers and students through compelling, real-world content.”

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley voiced his support for the school last week and recommended that board members vote in favor of awarding a charter to the school.

Members of the Worcester community began expressing concerns about the school when it was first proposed in late 2022. Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty said at a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting on Tuesday that “every elected official” representing the city, including the school committee, city council, and state delegation, opposed the proposed charter school.

“My city opens its arms to children from all over the world. Ninety languages are spoken in the Worcester Public Schools by children, staff, and teachers from over 100 different countries. We know this proposed school will not educate the students of our city, it will not educate our English language learners or our special needs students. Our students with autism, Down Syndrome, and physical disabilities will not be attending or welcome at this school,” he said to members of the board.

He added that the school would not provide physical education or the “breadth and depth” of artistic programs offered at Worcester Public Schools.

Rep. David LeBoeuf and Sens. Robyn Kennedy and Anne Gobi also urged the board to vote against the charter, saying the school would drain public resources for an institution that does not serve students equally.

Several public commenters, including LeBoeuf, took special issue with a line in Old Sturbridge Village’s 2022 annual report, that said the charter school would “provide reliable, contractual revenue to the museum, safeguarding us against fluctuations in uncontrollable factors that impact admission revenue such as weather and public health.”

“The application proposes to drain $7 million a year from our 24,000 students [in the WPS system], all for enrollment that maxes out at 360. This plainly parasitic proposal is meant to see how far [Old Sturbridge Village] can go in taking public money meant for public education,” LeBoeuf said.

The Worcester Democrat argued that the charter school would receive public funding despite contradicting the “legislative intent” of an education finance reform law passed in 2019 known as the Student Opportunity Act. The law, which Gov. Maura Healey announced last week would be fully funded in her fiscal year 2024 budget, calls for an unprecedented infusion of state funds to lift up historically high-needs students and districts.

“My fellow colleagues and I when we passed the SOA were directing funds to lift ELL, special ed, and DCF-involved kids in districts like Worcester, not aiming for school budgets to be tapped as a piggy bank for the museum,” LeBoeuf said.

The mayor and state delegation were joined by members of the Worcester School Committee, the WPS superintendent, Worcester parents, the president of the Worcester NAACP, and the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association in urging the board to vote against granting a charter to Worcester Cultural Academy.

The charter school applicants also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting in support of the proposed school, saying that it would provide new learning opportunities for children from a school district that is “underperforming.”

Melissa Hogan, director of special education at Old Sturbridge Academy charter public school, who said she would run the special education department at the new charter school if it opened, said the interactive learning model was helpful for students with disabilities.

“I’ve also witnessed first-hand the positive impact of a school and museum partnership for students with disabilities and the project-based learning that is the core of academic programming. I’ve become so passionate about this school model where students with disabilities can thrive with these project-based and hands-on learning experiences, and through connecting what they learned in the classroom to real-world applications,” Hogan said.

The application summary that the charter applicants provided to the education board said the school is intended to provide new opportunities for students. It also says the school plans to target “urban children historically underserved for learning due to poverty, language or learning differences, to thrive in a charter public school setting.”

The Hanover Theater and Conservatory for the Performing Arts and the EcoTarium both told DESE they plan to partner with the charter school, and a third Worcester cultural organization, Joy of Music, submitted a letter of support, according to the department’s final application review.

Stacey Luster, a founding member of Worcester Cultural Academy, said WPS has “taken a turn in the wrong direction.”

“Recruiting and retaining diverse educators has been put on the back burner. Most Worcester Public Schools are not meeting academic expectations. The low achievement has become normalized,” she said. “Parents and educators have been approaching me all along during this process, saying we hope this school gets approved because we need other options.”

Charter schools are often controversial when they come before the education board, as they use public funds but offer specialized education. BESE Chair Katherine Craven said more state-granted charters have been forfeited than have been granted in the last five years.

Tutwiler, in his first vote on a charter school in his role as education secretary, said his vote against Worcester Cultural Academy should not be seen as general opposition to charter schools. He said he would examine each proposal before him individually.

But as for the Worcester charter school, Tutwiler said he was concerned about “equity and access.”

“The particular provider does not have proven experience with multilingual learners, and the application does not provide specific research citations to demonstrate how the model they’re proposing would serve multilingual learners well,” Tutwiler said. “Worcester is a community whose student body is nearly 30 percent ELL or multi-lingual learner, among the highest in the state. I believe that all public schools, charter or district, must provide equal access to all students.”