Using an Uzi When a Fly-Swatter Will Do

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In today’s Star-Ledger Bob Braun has another piece on the “mothers’ crusade known as Save Our Schools New Jersey” that aims to push legislation that would allow new charter schools to open only after a community vote.

What’s extraordinary about the movement is that it is leaderless and based less on personal face-to-face contacts than on email, Facebook and conference calls. It is suburban, white, female, and professional. The two organizers of the Millburn rally — private school teacher Jill Kimelman of Millburn and community organizer Alle Ries of Maplewood — first met face to face on the stairs of the Bauer center less than an hour before the rally.

Here’s what’s extraordinary about this “movement:” it aims to blanket NJ with legislation that assumes that all kids live in towns where all children are wealthy and above-average. It’s Lake Wobegon legislation; no surprise that its website begins with the statement, “Our students’ performance consistently ranks first or second nationally.” True enough, if you live in Princeton, or one of our other wealthy low-minority suburbs.

Not so much if you live in the “other Jersey,” where many parents are unemployed and/or uneducated and kids’ performance is decidedly below-average.

SOS started in posh Princeton, whose school budget bottom line is threatened by the emergence of two language-immersion schools in the area (Mandarin and Hebrew), and the continued success of Princeton Charter School.

Over in the alternate New Jersey, Camden City School District flunked its QSAC monitoring. (Translation: Quality Single Accountability Continuum, which grades districts in five areas.) According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, this poor urban not-Princeton district garnered a 13% for instruction and program, 11% in governance, 36% on personnel, 53% in operations, and 73% in fiscal management. A passing grade is 80%. The presence of a fiscal monitor may account for its high score in the last category.

Under the legislation advocated by SOS, a new charter school in Camden would require a “yes” vote from residents.

People don’t show up to vote in Camden. Only 19% of voters voted in the 2005 gubernatorial election.

That’s what’s wrong with the legislation proposed by SOS. In attempting to dampen a splinter group of charter schools – those intended for wealthy districts where parents line up for dual-language instruction (or public financing of yeshivas or its Mandarin equivalent) – SOS undermines efforts to establish functional schools in areas desperate for them.

Should residents of high-achieving districts get to vote on whether or not to fund charter schools? Maybe. Should residents of high-achieving districts get to write legislation that determines whether or not impoverished families have access to alternatives to their failing district schools?

Camden is not Princeton. What’s best for kids in one is not necessarily what’s best for kids in another. Do the SOS moms really believe that the kids in Camden are better off in Camden High than in another school? Are they willing to write off impoverished minority kids because their parents don’t vote? Reality check: in Camden High School 80.7% of kids fail the language arts portion of the high school proficiency test. Everyone fails the math portion. No one takes A.P. tests. 23% of the kids drop out (and that’s the number that Camden fesses up to; it’s “self-reported.”) SAT scores average in the 300’s. 42% of the Class of 2010 actually graduated.

It’s wonderful that SOS’s moms are politically savvy and committed to their kids’ traditional public schools. It would be great if they’d find the courage to come right out and say what everyone knows: this legislation might benefit our Princetons and Millburns and Maplewoods, but it will damage our Camdens and Trentons and Newarks.

Another thought: in some ways this legislation is an inverse of the widely-derided “Parent Trigger Bill” proposed by Republican Sen. Joseph Kyrillo. His bill is modeled after the Compton “Parent Revolution” movement, which advocates that if 51% of parents in a school district vote to close a school then majority rules. Ironically, the Compton bill is intended to give minority parents the power to close failing traditional public schools and replace them with charters, while the SOS-NJ plan is to close off competition to successful traditional schools and stymie the expansion of charters.

Correction: a reader points out (see comments) that the charter legislation supported by SOS-NJ states, “[t]he commissioner shall not approve an application for the establishment of a charter school unless the establishment of the charter school has been approved by the voters of the district at the annual school election in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type II district, or the board of school estimate in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type I district.” Here’s the actual legislation.

Type I districts have appointed school boards; there are 21 county districts, 8 special services districts, and 21 with mayor-appointed boards. The other 553 school boards are elected by voters.

So some proposed charter schools could bypass voter approval, but they would still need the approval of an appointed school board. Either way, an approval is an unlikely scenario. Trustees would be loathe to approve a charter school because of the fear of loss of funds and kids in Camden still have no alternatives.

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  • kallikak, June 23, 2011 @ 5:31 pm Reply

    Does anybody from Camden read this blog?

    The undertone here seems to be that Princetonians are well-equipped to exercise their rights via the ballot box while residents of Camden are…are…????

    Who is it you posit to save the needy residents of Camden from themselves—the Governor, Chris Cerf, Steve Sweeney, some hedge-fund dead-enders masquerading as school “reformers”???

    Oh, the humanity!

  • Trish, June 23, 2011 @ 6:06 pm Reply

    Wow, I'm stunned.

    No one should vote on charter schools because 19% of voters in Camden don't give the results reformers like you want?

    Sorry, Laura. I'm not giving up my opportunity to vote on charters in MY district because you don't like the voter turnout in Camden. RIDICULOUS.

  • NJ Left Behind, June 23, 2011 @ 6:20 pm Reply

    Hi, Trish. You nailed the problem. Successful school districts have much to fear from charter expansion because of the cost of tuition payments. That's a completely different situation than parents in failing districts face. I'm suggesting that the legislation makes no distinction between the two and that lack of analysis/fear to step in a political can of worms is potentially harmful to families stuck in our worst schools.

  • darcie, June 24, 2011 @ 1:35 am Reply

    Your blog states:

    Under the legislation advocated by SOS, a new charter school in Camden would require a “yes” vote from residents.

    This is incorrect. The legislation states:

    “The commissioner shall not approve an application for the establishment of a charter school unless the establishment of the charter school has been approved by the voters of the district at the annual school election in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type II district, or the board of school estimate in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type I district.”

    This allows for local control in suburban and urban communities. The low voter turn out in Camden is not an argument against this legislation. Save Our Schools NJ is trying to help legislators give ALL communities a say in whether a charter is beneficial to their community. Why shouldn't suburban AND urban communities have a say in what happens to their public schools? Why should the decision rest with Trenton and Trenton alone and not the local voters or school boards that understand the needs of the community better? You have misrepresented the legislation to advance a distorted view of a grassroots organization who's only goal is to create equal educational opportunities for ALL New Jersey children, not just the lucky few that win a lottery to attend a charter school.

  • Trish, June 24, 2011 @ 3:01 am Reply

    You were wrong, Laura. When can we expect a retraction of this overwrought screed?

  • darcie, June 24, 2011 @ 5:02 pm Reply

    Just 24 hours ago you posted a blog that questioned the motives of SOSnj without full knowledge of the legislation, and now that you have been corrected you offered no apology for your misstatements and untruths.

    I would like your response to the scenario we are in here in Highland Park which is where I am from. We are facing the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School application which has been rejected twice by the DoE. It was originally proposed for Highland Park and Edison, but they have recently added New Brunswick, a Type I District, as a sending district and moved the location to New Brunswick. Highland Park residents have collected 2100 petition signatures from the three districts, 600 Statements of Opposition from Highland Park and New Brunswick, and all three Superintendents and School Boards are against the charter.

    I won't bother telling you about Highland Park and what the charter would do to our excellent, ethnically diverse school district. I would like you comments on whether the Highland Park Lead Founder of the charter should be allowed to use the great need in city of New Brunswick as leverage to get the education she wants for a select few in Highland Park. Do you think a Hebrew Language Charter School serves the needs of the children of New Brunswick? The people that live and work in that community don't, but currently they don't have a say, only Trenton does, and the founders are under no obligation to demonstrate any support from the community they want to take funds from.

    SOSnj is working to give all communities a say in what is or isn't good for their community. You seem to want to make this a suburban vs. urban issue when it is not. In Highland Park the few that are for the charter similarly want to make this a Jewish vs. non Jewish issue, which again, it also is not.

    So my questions to you, in addition to the one above, are:

    1. Why shouldn't communities get to decide WHICH charters are right for them? We trust communities to make decisions for themselves. Why don't you?

    2. Why should the DoE be the sole authorizer of Charter Schools in the State of New Jersey? We are the only state with only one authorizer.

    I look forward to you response.

  • Trish, June 24, 2011 @ 10:07 pm Reply

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Trish, June 25, 2011 @ 12:54 pm Reply

    Honestly, your assertions about “caring about poor kids” were believable until you started saying that their parents didn't deserve a vote because you think they won't vote in favor of charter schools. Now you just sound like a shrill Michelle Rhee clone.

  • NJ Left Behind, June 26, 2011 @ 2:05 pm Reply

    Hi, Darcie. Actually, I believe that there should be multiple authorizers of charter schools, including local boards of education and universities. I've stated this multiple times.

    I also agree that a Hebrew immersion charter school is pretty sketchy; sounds a bit like public funding of a yeshiva.

    As NJ moves forward with charter school expansion, we shouldn't target effective school districts — like Highland Park — but chronically failing districts. My point is that the charter legislation proposed by your group is aimed at hamstringing charter schools where we don't need them, but the effect is to hamstring them where we do.

    I'd fully support different legislation that puts our energies where the kids need them most, which is not in Highland Park.

  • darcie, June 27, 2011 @ 3:25 am Reply

    Thanks for your response, but now I am confused. You say you are in favor of multiple authorizers, including local boards of education, but still assert that this legislation will 'hamstring' charter schools in districts that need them by giving the local boards a voice. Can you clarify?

    In the interest of fairness I would also like to post the Policy Goals of Save Our Schools NJ. Your original post significantly misrepresented the position of this grassroots organization, and unfairly painted it as only being interested in representing 'wealthy, low minority suburbs'.

    We support:

    1. Fully funding the school funding formula, so that every child can have access to a high-quality public education

    2. Local community control over the establishment of new charter schools

    3. Greater accountability and transparency of charter school finances and educational performance

    We oppose:

    Reductions in State resources that support high-quality education for every child

    Unfettered expansion of charter schools regardless of quality or host community wishes

    Taxpayer funded vouchers that pay for private or religious education

    Use of for-profit companies to manage public schools

    I continue to challenge what appears to be your belief that any charter school in a Type I district is a good option and that those communities should have no say. While I appreciate that you state that “as we move forward” districts like Highland Park should not be targeted, but the bullseye is already on our chest! We are already losing funding to two charter schools, and the addition of Tikin Olam, if approved, would potentially devastate our district. What do you propose we do while we wait for Trenton to decide that they shouldn't mess with successful districts in their ferver to expand charters?

    Hatikvah was approved last year solely for East Brunswick. When they were unable to draw enough students from that community they were given permission by the DoE to pull students from Highland Park, without our consent. In the coming years, as that charter grows, we will potentially lose hundreds of thousands of dollars to a charter we never had a say in.

    What if we replaced Highland Park with Lawrence Township, and New Brunswick with Trenton? Would you feel so comfortable making pronouncements if it was your school budget on the line? Would you still wait for Trenton to decide your district's fate? I grew up in Pennington. I know your area. Parents there would not be any happier than we are in Highland Park to be losing programs to charters that they don't need or support. Perhaps when this issue becomes more than a hypothetical for your district you will understand why the parents in towns like Princeton, East Brunswick, South Brunswick, Millburn, Highland Park and yes, even towns like New Brunswick, are standing up not just for our kids, but for all NJ kids.

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