What’s Up With the Optics of the Old White Lawyer Denying School Choice To the Black Mom?

NJ Spotlight News has a fine video up today that sheds some light on the Murphy Administration’s rejections of expansion requests from numerous high-performing public charter schools, despite avid parent demand. These rejections on Tuesday were preceded by Murphy’s declaration on Monday, “if it’s a high-quality top performing school, regardless of what school it is…we’ve never, ever, ever been, ‘Hell no to charters.”

Unintentionally, I’d guess, the video also showcases the uncomfortable optics here: pro-charter parents, disproportionately low-income and of color, are pit against anti-choice lobbyists, disproportionately high-income and white. Case in point: The first interview is with Trenton parent Danielle Burgess, a Black single mother of three, one of whom goes to Achievers Early College Prep Charter School. The second interview is with David Sciarra, Executive Director of the anti-charter Education Law Center,  an older white man who lives in Central Jersey in a home worth northward of half a million dollars. 

#Awkward.

Yet the juxtaposition of Burgess and Sciarra run deeper than optics.

When Burgess speaks to the camera, she expresses her dismay at the Department of Education’s decisions: “I take education very seriously and I want my children to get the best possible education,” she explains. “I’ve been going over the options in my mind” and, with one child heading into 10th grade, “I know I can’t afford to send her to private school.” Her only option at this point is Trenton Central High School, where four out of five students don’t meet expectations in reading; the math scores are hidden “in order to protect student privacy,” which means proficiency rates are lower than 10%. Sixteen months after graduating high school, only 21% of students are enrolled in any higher-learning institution. Forty-four percent of students are chronically absent, double the rate of the charter that Burgess’s daughter attended.

Achievers Early has its issues, although it’s worth pointing out that it enrolls 16% more economically-disadvantaged students than Trenton High. There, according to 2018 data, 25% of students meet expectations in reading and 13% meet expectations in math, nothing to write home about but better than the traditional district option. More recent data, included in its expansion proposal, shows far greater proficiency rates, especially for students who remain continuouslly enrolled. That’s why the school wants to expand, so students like Burgess’s daughter could stay.. 

Yet Sciarra would have that 10th grader move to the district high school rather than stay in a higher-performing school. When queried by the reporter, he claims the schools that were denied expansion “hadn’t used up” their current expansion seats, like North Star Academy in Newark, which currently, he says, has unused seats. But that’s because, as Harry Lee of the NJ Public Charter School Association explains, it takes a long time to get facilities ready–NJ charter school law disallows any facilities aid for charters while paying in full for traditional district schools. For example, it took Philip’s Academy in Newark five years to buy and renovate a building for its new high school—and now that it’s ready, Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan retracted that expansion approval. (Philip’s Academy students ready for high school are now desperately searching for a seat elsewhere because Newark’s univeral enrollment window, controlled by the district, closes today.)

Sciarra knows this, of course. Education Law Center regularly sues charter schools, claiming they increase segregation (that’s the actual target of the current suit, even though, according to analysts, the impact of charter schools on NJ’s school segregation is “statistically indistinguishable from zero”) and insisting they “siphon money” from district coffers (even though a member of the ELC tribe, Mark Weber, wrote a report showing that, in fact, the presence of NJ charter schools results in an increase in district revenue per student). 

From all appearances–yes, we’re back to optics–Sciarra doesn’t care about Danielle Burgess and her children. She begs the Murphy Administration, “please overturn the decisions you made.” Tens of thousands of NJ parents and students red-lined into school districts like Newark and Trenton concur.

Laura Waters

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