The Burlington county charter, 142 kids in grades K-3, wanted to add a 4th and 5th grade and increase enrollment by 70 kids. But after a fiery campaign waged by one of its receiving districts, Florence Township Public Schools, and two lobbying groups, Save Our Schools-NJ, and Speak Up NJ, Riverbank’s board voted to withdraw its application. (Speak Up NJ is a new anti-reform group which describes itself as “dedicated to helping parents across the state defend their children’s public schools from unwanted charters.”)
Riverbank graciously withdrew its application. But the intensity of the attacks on a high-achieving charter school elucidates one of NJ’s challenges to expanding access to functional public schools for all kids and the role of these anti-charter groups.
Florence Public Schools’ push against the expansion of Riverbank was based on the financial burden of tuition payments. The district is a small K-12 three-school district of 1,700 children. The whole district, in fact, could fit within a typical high school; efficiencies come hard and the budget is tight. Tuition payments to Riverbank, with a per pupil cost of $9,267 (about $3K less than Florence’s) will come to $1.2 million a year next year, about the same amount as Florence’s allowable budget increase.
We love our local schools and the presence of alternatives poses fiscal challenges to traditional districts. It’s perfectly rational for the Florence Board of Education to oppose additional budget burdens. It’s perfectly rational to wonder whether the financial hardship inflicted on the traditional district, not a great district but a good one, is balanced by enhanced opportunities for the 142 kids who get to go to Riverbank.
School choice is hard. Establishing a robust system of school choice incites resentment and insecurity. But it starts getting scary when this anti-choice ardor is aimed only at charters, despite the fact that NJ’s (short) menu of choices — magnet schools, Interdistrict Public Choice schools, and even out-of-district placements for special ed kids — creates the same fiscal burdens. What is it about charters?
Here’s a recent example of the increasingly myopic yet rabid opposition from a Star-Ledger editorial that ran this week, a frenzied, paranoic, Diane Ravitch-inspired jeremiad. The author claims that the Christie Administration’s intentions to expand charter schools (one supported vigorously, by the way, by President Obama) is ”a carefully orchestrated plot to systematically dismantle New Jersey public education,” a “cynical plot” that “awakens the false hopes of the poor, who will send their children to these schools for a quality education, whereas all they’ll be getting is a bogus substitute, shoddy goods, with no state oversight or transparency, no accountability, with results no more substantial than smoke-and-mirror tricks by the circus conjuror, aka the director of each such charter.”
(On first read, I thought this piece was some sort of Onion-style parody.. But it’s not! This guy’s serious! I need to get more cynical.)
NJ’s anti-charter lobbyists are walking a fine line. On the one hand, they’ve successfully redirected the Christie Administration’s efforts at charter expansion to chronically failing districts That’s a reasonable and fair outcome.
On the other hand, they’re falling perilously close to losing credibility by teetering on the edge of the sort of conspiratorial fanaticism embodied by the Ledger editorial, one that logically would preclude the existence of NJ’s other forms of schools choice. Are these groups ready to take on, say, the elite Bergen County Technical Schools, which bill local districts $27K per pupil per year, a far greater burden on budgets than Riverbank? Are they ready to oppose the expansion of the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, widely supported by NJ’s legislators, that gives the power of placement to parents and families?
No, of course not. Their ire is reserved for public charter schools. And as the anti-charter nuts (see Ledger editorial) ratchet up their inflammatory rhetoric, groups like Save Our Schools-NJ are going to have to figure out exactly what and whom they stand for.