Reactionary "Activists"

Bob Braun’s Star-Ledger column – “N.J. Activists, Parents Warn Against Promoting Charter Schools as Fix for Education System” is a bit of a cipher. Public school failure, says Braun, is not real but “perceived.” Public charters, he says, “receive support from some of the wealthiest and most famous people on the planet.” His source for anti-charter rhetoric comes from residents of wealthy Princeton, who belong to a group called Save Our Schools – New Jersey. (Sorry - no reference available on the web.) And Braun’s authority on the ills of public charters is Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers, whose impartiality is questioned by Bruce Tedeschi of the NJ Charter Association. (Tedeschi: Baker’s research is "closely aligned with teachers unions, which have been vocal opponents of charter schools and have a vested financial interest in their ultimate failure." Here’s Prof. Baker’s response.)

It must be a conspiracy. Charter school advocates are out to dismantle American public education, funded by evil hedge-fund profiteers. Charter schools undermine democracy, “creaming’ or ‘skimming,’ excluding special education students, poor students on free-lunch programs, or limited English-speaking children,” according to Prof. Baker. Charters are secretly expanding in suburbs, “tak[ing] top students while leaving poorer students — who are more expensive to educate — behind,” according to the SOS-NJ spokeswoman.

There’s two problems with Braun’s argument. The first is that he limits his discussion of charters to rich suburbs like Princeton (where the spokeswoman from Save Our Schools-NJ sends her daughter, according to the article). There is an argument to be made for limiting charters to poor, urban areas (I’ve made it here), though that’s not very American – open marketplace, freedom of choice and all that. But can Braun really make his argument stick in cities like Trenton or Newark or Willingboro? Does he really believe that public school failure at Camden High, where 80% of juniors and senior fail the literacy assessment and over 90% fail the math assessment, is a matter of perception?

The second issue is that Braun argues against charters on the basis of “cost and accountability.” But take a look at the report from Ball State University called “Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists,” which compares recent traditional public school funding with charter public school funding. New Jersey’s level of inequity is rated “Severe.” While per pupil spending in traditional schools is listed in NJ as $19,837 for 2007, funding per pupil in charters is $12,442, a difference of $7,395 or 37.3%.

It’s kind of funny. Here’s a premier columnist from the Star-Ledger arguing that we’re cheating our rich, privileged kids out of a first-rate education because Princeton Public Schools, which spent $18,340 per pupil in 2010, is going broke making tuition payments to Princeton Charter School, which spent $13,786 in 2010. And Braun quotes Prof. Baker regarding the prospect of Rutgers opening a charter school: “it is a big responsibility — we’d have to demand accountability and pull the charters if they’re not succeeding.’’

How long has Camden High been around? When will we start demanding accountability from our traditional public schools? Maybe SOS-NJ will take on the cause of the students there who are unburdened by the dilemma over whether to attend Princeton Public Schools or Princeton Charter School.

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