When I examine the NJ Department of Education’s spanking-new webpage called “Charter School Program Act Review — Outreach 2018” I keep thinking of a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland when the Knave of Hearts is on trial for stealing tarts baked by the Queen:
“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.
“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first–verdict afterward.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”
“Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.
“I won’t!” said Alice.
“Off with her head!” the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.
What’s the difference between a trial where the verdict has been decided in advance and the DOE’s process for soliciting outreach on NJ’s charter school law?
Trick question: the answer is “nothing.” And it’s all in the timing.
Consider this: Last Thursday afternoon that DOE webpage went live. At first glance it looks fine. There’s a link to a short survey for people who want to submit answers to questions about their thoughts on how to improve the state’s 23-year-old charter school law. There’s a FAQ page on charter schools, which includes how aspiring charters are authorized and how they’re held to higher accountability standards than traditional schools (although, really guys, you know that, except for the renaissance schools in Camden, few charters get 90 percent of per pupil funding). There’s a powerpoint that covers the basics, like how charters are closed down if they are not academically successful or financially viable.
And then there’s a “Charter School Program Outreach 2018 Calendar.”
Charter school parents live complicated lives. They are disproportionately low-income, tend to hold multiple jobs, and (duh) have young children at home.
Yet on the afternoon of October 11th the DOE releases a calendar for stakeholders to provide input. For parents in, say, Paterson, that date is today at 5:30 (at the Paterson Free Public Library at 250 Broadway).
When my kids were little — even now when I have a son with multiple disabilities at home — getting childcare took time (and money). It’s likely that most charter school parents don’t even know that there’s a meeting tonight in Paterson, scheduled at a time when they’re feeding their kids dinner and helping them with homework. In what way is the DOE notifying parents about tonight’s meeting? Are they working with Paterson schools to spread the word? Are they providing childcare for parents who (like me) might be unable to leave home on such short notice? Do DOE officials really think that an honest and transparent process for reviewing the charter school law and seeking input from parents of 50,000 charter school students can be accomplished by holding (count’em) five meetings, all at the same time of day, none in South Jersey? Do they really think that they will garner thorough input through last-minute calls for commentary and a website no one knows about? Do they really think that people won’t link a fly-by-night “review” to, as Tom Moran puts it, the “brass ring firmly hooked into the new governor’s nose” by NJEA, which loudly favors a charter school moratorium?
“Sentence first–verdict afterward!” said the Queen.
But what do I know? I’m not a charter school parent. So I decided to ask one, Altorice Frazier, who has children at two of KIPP’s Newark schools (THRIVE and BOLD) and is co-founder of a platform called Parents Engaging Parents that encourages adults to be full partners throughout their children’s education.
I asked Altorice what he thought about the DOE’s charter school outreach strategy, which I presume intends to capture the fullest possible picture of parent opinions. Altorice wanted to talk about the roll-out, which he said “wasn’t conducive to parent engagement.” He knows Paterson. He speaks to Paterson parents. “If they know about the meeting tonight,” he said, “it’s because I told them. Or they heard it through the grapevine. You can go to the website but someone has to tell you to find it. They’re [the DOE] just not publicizing it. [Parents] find out a day before. The State Department is holding a meeting: this is a big deal! But you find out by luck…I don’t know of any advertising about it.
I asked him about the time of day the DOE scheduled all the meetings, all starting at 5 or 5:30. “A parent like myself,” he told me, “knows you don’t start a meeting until 6:30 or 7 because you’ve got to get your children situated. Parents have to get prepared. The DOE is scheduling it for their convenience, not ours. If they really want parent engagement, they’d hold the meetings on the weekends and we’re definitely not available on Friday nights [when one of the five meetings is scheduled].”
Altorice continued, “why didn’t they find out from parents when they can attend? This is a very important moment and it should have been a huge roll-out!”
I asked him whether he thought the DOE did so intentionally in order to minimize charter parent participation. (Shoot me; I’m a cynic.) “I’d be lying,” he said, “if I said I know their intentions. But if you really want parents to be part of the review of our charter school law, why do you wait til a couple of days before to tell them to come out?
Altorice concluded,”I don’t know if it’s ignorance or it’s intentional. They must know, though, that this isn’t the best approach. It’s Tuesday? I found out Friday! Hey, perception is reality. Either they did it on purpose or it was a mistake. Either way, it’s wrong.”
Yup. Either way, it’s wrong.