How pissed off is Education Law Center over the proposed Urban Hope Act, the fast-tracked bill that would (in its most recent incarnation) build a few new schools in Camden, Newark, and Jersey City?
This pissed: ELC is accusing the Christie Administration of using the bill to shut down the School Development Authority (SDA), which “has stranded 52 major school facilities projects…in which taxpayers have already invested over $300 million.” And that’s not all. Fumes ELC on its Facebook page,
In addition, the SDA has refused to address hundreds of emergency health and safety projects in some of the oldest, most dilapidated school buildings in the state, forcing thousands of students and teachers to endure dangerous, unsafe and unhealthy conditions every day. Even worse, the SDA has spent close to $90 million in taxpayer funds over the last two years to support almost 300 employees, many of whom are highly paid, along with office space and other overhead, while the agency has not completed, or even started, one major construction project. The waste of taxpayer funds at the SDA since January 2010 amounts to a scandal of unprecedented proportions.
Deep breaths, everyone. The Urban Hope Act (here’s background from NJ Spotlight) was originally proposed by State Senator Donald Norcross and Assemblyman Angel Fuentes, both of Camden. Its intent was to turn over our worst schools to private management, somewhat like the Renaissance Program in Philadelphia (just across the river from Camden).
The Christie Administration apparently felt confident enough of the bill’s passage to include it in its waiver application to the U.S. D.O.E. for a bye on ESEA benchmarks. Over the last few months the bill’s been considerably toned down and now would simply allow four new school buildings to be built in Camden, Newark, and Jersey City, would hold all schools to the same accountability standards, and would protect teachers’ right to organize. The bill is expected to pass through the Assembly Budget Committee today and come to the floor of the Legislature on Monday, the last day of the lame duck session.
The compromises are enough to bring NJEA’s leadership around. Here’s a just-released statement from NJEA President Barbara Keshishian:
The Urban Hope Act is an innovative effort to improve educational outcomes for children in some of our most challenging educational settings. NJEA supports this legislation because it allows for innovation while providing meaningful public accountability. It is a creative expansion of public school choice that uses public funds to support public education. “We appreciate the opportunity to work with the sponsors of this legislation. This bill ensures that employees in the proposed Renaissance schools will have all of the rights of other public school employees, which will help create a climate of innovation and creativity in the classroom.
Obviously not everyone’s on board. Count ELC as primary opponents and add in the anti-surburban charter school organization Save Our Schools-NJ, which apparently fights any matter that offends their (mis)conception that private entities are an assault on the purity of public education. Here’s SOS-NJ’s most recent Facebook posting:
RED ALERT! NJ Senate Poised to Enhance Corruption of Public Education…this awful bill could be law by the second week in January…This is major league public education privatization and a recipe for corruption and abuse, being snuck through the legislature at the end of the Lame Duck Session.
Here’s the thing. ELC is right: school buildings in Camden (and Newark and Jersey City and lots of other impoverished Jersey towns) are rife with “dangerous, unsafe, and unhealthy conditions.” SDA delays are scandalous.
But how do you go from there to the conclusion that new buildings would result in “students housed in safe and educationally adequate schools”? Safe? Sure, if by safe you mean the sheetrock’s not crumbling. But educationally adequate?
Camden’s high school students attend classes in dreadful buildings and desperately need facilities where the sheetrock isn’t crumbling and the toilets don’t leak. But will such necessary improvements lead to “educationally adequate schools,” as ELC promises? In 2010 80.7% of Camden High’s juniors and seniors failed the state assessment in language arts (an 8th grade level test). So many of them failed the math portion that the NJ DOE data field has an asterisk for all levels. Average SAT scores are 330 in math and 340 in verbal. No Advanced Placements courses are offered. The graduation rate is reported to be 42.1%, although that number will drop this year once the State no longer allows district to self-report.
The kids at Camden High need a lot more than new buildings. ELC must know that, yet it indulges in rhetoric that belittles the intelligence and intentions of its stakeholders. Is it feeling betrayed by NJEA’s willingness to work with the Christie Administration? Is it feeling territorial about school construction? And does anyone there really believe that all the kids need in Camden (and Jersey City and Newark) is some new drywall and a plumber?