Charter, Shmarter

Lady Liberty Academy Charter School in Newark, a K-8 school with 456 kids (273 are on the waiting list), is the subject of a 4-page story in New Jersey Newsroom today that highlights its dysfunction, poor governance, and the unfair firing of a kindergarten teacher. Only two seats are filled on the 9-member Board of Education (there were four, but two members resigned after the teacher was fired), staffers compare elaborate preparations for DOE visits as “a Potemkin village,” and one of the principal’s criticisms of the fired teacher was that she dresses “’too professionally,’ complaining that ‘you teachers love those long skirts.’”

How do the kids do? According to 2008-2009 DOE data, 62.5% of 3d graders failed the language arts portion of the NJ ASK 3 and 52.1% failed the math portion. Among 8th graders, 43.1% failed the language arts portion of the ASK 8 and 56.9% failed the math portion. Pretty shabby.

Is this the story of a much-ballyhooed charter school that masks lack of accountability, lack of due process for teachers, and inept management in spite of frequent monitoring by the State DOE, a perfect emblem for charter school foes? Seems likely.

Now stay with us as we jump south to Pleasantville Public Schools in Atlantic County, another Abbott district that the Press of Atlantic City describes as “a city with a school district much smaller than Newark's but no less dysfunctional.” How dysfunctional? Three board members sent a letter this week to Gov. Christie begging for more help than that proffered by the state monitor. There’s been 14 superintendents in 13 years. The current superintendent, Gloria Grantham, filed a police report claiming harassment by a board member. A former board member was sentenced on Tuesday to for committing extortion by bribing two other board members to approve payments to a company he owned. (All three will serve prison time.) In 2007 four members of the Board were indicted for accepting bribes to steer business to insurance and roofing businesses.

How about the kids of Pleasantville, a predominantly poor, Hispanic community where 38.5% of the students’ first language is Spanish? In keeping with the data from Lady Liberty, let’s look at ASK 3 and ASK 8 scores. At Leeds Avenue Elementary School 77.8% of 3d graders failed the language arts portion of the ASK 3 (certainly ELL issues are involved) and 37.5% failed the math portion. For 8th graders at Pleasantville Middle School, 42.3% failed language arts and 54.5% failed math, a statistical dead-heat with Lady Liberty. (The money not so much: total comparative cost per pupil at Lady Liberty is $11,907 and at Pleasantville it’s $16,507.)

Here’s the point. We have two separate organizations in equally poor neighborhoods offering education services, both under monitoring by the DOE. They are both plagued by dysfunction and poor achievement. Is it really that relevant that one of them happens to be a charter school and one happens to be a traditional public district? With all the focus on the politics of charter schools vs. traditional public schools, we may be losing sight of the fact that both charters and traditionals are yoked to the same sets of standards for academic accountability and the same issues of governance.

In other words, it’s not a charter v. traditional school issue. It’s a DOE issue. And who can blame this overburdened state agency dwarfed by the challenge of overseeing 600 school districts, pummeled by subpoenas, budget cuts, and changes in leadership? But those explanations for desultory oversight don’t help the kids in Newark or Pleasantville; whether they attend charter schools or traditional public schools is about as relevant to their families as butter churns and gin mills.

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