COMMENTARY: Sue Altman and Keith Benson Boil With Rage at Camden Parents

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Yesterday the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article about the beautiful new $133 million Camden High School building, which will house 1,200 students. And that’terrible news.

At least according to Camden teacher union president Keith Benson and NJ Working Families Alliance executive director Sue Altman, who favor institutional authority over the educational preferences of low-income Black and Brown parents. After all, what else can one glean from tweets like these?

Let’s back up. Camden High School used to serve several thousand students but over the years, as parents have opted for alternative public schools for their children, enrollment is way down, about 400 at last count. Plus the century-old building was in wretched condition. So the city Board of Education, with funding from the now bankrupt Schools Development Authority, came up with a plan to replace the facility with a “state-of-the-art” high school to serve district high school students enrolled in the old building as well as in three magnet high schools.  (Another district high school, Woodrow Wilson, will continue to enroll students.) This new Camden High building has a massive lobby, a charging station for electric vehicles, a black box theater, a forensic science lab, a weight room, an occupational/physical therapy room, a dance studio with mirrored walls and ballet bars, and large windows that showcase Camden and Philadelphia skylines.

Here are three comments from students, courtesy of the Inquirer:

I love it. This is real nice.

I think this is going to be good for a lot of people.

I can’t wait.

Here’s Camden Board of Education president Wasim Muhammad:

This is what equity is all about in education.

Here’s Camden Public Schools Superintendent Katrina McCombs, who graduated in 1987 from the old high school:

This building is symbolic of a phoenix rising out of the ashes.

And–wait for it– here’s Camden Education Association president Keith Benson:

The new building looks nice.

But that’s not all he said yesterday; remember, his ideas are far more “sophisticated” and all those quotes above have been “contorted to fit the narrative set forth by the school district.” (Paranoid much?) For Altman/Benson, the Inquirer’s article, plus another that remains uncited, foments the festering of their collective soul. They are delirious, febrile with rage that, out of a total enrollment of 15,000 public school students in Camden, only 6,800 students are in traditional district schools because parents of 4,350 children have chosen to enroll them in traditional charter schools and parents of 3,850 children have chosen to enroll them in “renaissance schools” operated by KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon charter school networks.

How dare these parents choose the best public schools for their children!

According to Benson/Altman’s warped narrative, these traitorous parents have abandoned Cooper’s Poynt Family School, where 12.8% of K-8 students are proficient in reading and 10.6% are proficient in math, and found false succor at Camden Prep (part of the Uncommon Schools public charter network) where 50% of K-8th graders are proficient in reading and 46.7% are proficient in math. 

And those parents better not think for a second of pulling their children out of Woodrow Wilson (Camden’s other high school), where 2% of students are proficient in math and reading. In fact, the proficiency levels are so low in every subject in every grade level that the state has redacted the data to “protect student privacy.” (We do know that the school has a 57% chronic absenteeism rate and a 57.6% high school graduation rate.)

But these facts about school quality are insignificant. Benson/Altman’s festering, suppurating infection is inflamed by terror that parents will continue to enroll their children in public non-district schools and–even worse!—that the alternative publics will expand to accomodate demand (“this beautiful new building could belong to KIPP”).

Here Altman echoes Benson’s thesis that public school reform–like offering parents a choice between enrolling their children in a school that has a 10% reading proficiency rate or a school that has a 50% reading proficiency rate— is a conspiracy (these are Benson’s words) among money-grubbing reformers directed at “oppressed natives” who are afflicted with a “psychosis” that leads them “to improve their own subjugated standing by attempting to join the ranks of those who do the oppressing.”

Or, to put it more clearly, Benson/Altman argue that Camden parents who choose to not send their kids to Cooper’s Poynt or Woodrow Wilson are vulnerable, victimized puppets of corporate oppressors (and, I guess, the Philadelphia Inquirer too) who are incapable of discerning educational quality or making sound decisions for their children.

I’d be curious what the leaders of the NJ Education Association, who fund both of them, think of these bigoted sentiments.

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