Using an Uzi When a Fly-Swatter Will Do

In today’s Star-Ledger Bob Braun has another piece on the “mothers’ crusade known as Save Our Schools New Jersey” that aims to push legislation that would allow new charter schools to open only after a community vote.
What’s extraordinary about the movement is that it is leaderless and based less on personal face-to-face contacts than on email, Facebook and conference calls. It is suburban, white, female, and professional. The two organizers of the Millburn rally — private school teacher Jill Kimelman of Millburn and community organizer Alle Ries of Maplewood — first met face to face on the stairs of the Bauer center less than an hour before the rally.
Here's what's extraordinary about this "movement:" it aims to blanket NJ with legislation that assumes that all kids live in towns where all children are wealthy and above-average. It's Lake Wobegon legislation; no surprise that its website begins with the statement, "Our students’ performance consistently ranks first or second nationally." True enough, if you live in Princeton, or one of our other wealthy low-minority suburbs.

Not so much if you live in the "other Jersey," where many parents are unemployed and/or uneducated and kids' performance is decidedly below-average.

SOS started in posh Princeton, whose school budget bottom line is threatened by the emergence of two language-immersion schools in the area (Mandarin and Hebrew), and the continued success of Princeton Charter School.

Over in the alternate New Jersey, Camden City School District flunked its QSAC monitoring. (Translation: Quality Single Accountability Continuum, which grades districts in five areas.) According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, this poor urban not-Princeton district garnered a 13% for instruction and program, 11% in governance, 36% on personnel, 53% in operations, and 73% in fiscal management. A passing grade is 80%. The presence of a fiscal monitor may account for its high score in the last category.

Under the legislation advocated by SOS, a new charter school in Camden would require a “yes” vote from residents.

People don’t show up to vote in Camden. Only 19% of voters voted in the 2005 gubernatorial election.

That’s what’s wrong with the legislation proposed by SOS. In attempting to dampen a splinter group of charter schools – those intended for wealthy districts where parents line up for dual-language instruction (or public financing of yeshivas or its Mandarin equivalent) – SOS undermines efforts to establish functional schools in areas desperate for them.

Should residents of high-achieving districts get to vote on whether or not to fund charter schools? Maybe. Should residents of high-achieving districts get to write legislation that determines whether or not impoverished families have access to alternatives to their failing district schools?

Camden is not Princeton. What’s best for kids in one is not necessarily what’s best for kids in another. Do the SOS moms really believe that the kids in Camden are better off in Camden High than in another school? Are they willing to write off impoverished minority kids because their parents don't vote? Reality check: in Camden High School 80.7% of kids fail the language arts portion of the high school proficiency test. Everyone fails the math portion. No one takes A.P. tests. 23% of the kids drop out (and that’s the number that Camden fesses up to; it’s “self-reported.”) SAT scores average in the 300’s. 42% of the Class of 2010 actually graduated.

It's wonderful that SOS's moms are politically savvy and committed to their kids' traditional public schools. It would be great if they'd find the courage to come right out and say what everyone knows: this legislation might benefit our Princetons and Millburns and Maplewoods, but it will damage our Camdens and Trentons and Newarks.

Another thought: in some ways this legislation is an inverse of the widely-derided "Parent Trigger Bill" proposed by Republican Sen. Joseph Kyrillo. His bill is modeled after the Compton "Parent Revolution" movement, which advocates that if 51% of parents in a school district vote to close a school then majority rules. Ironically, the Compton bill is intended to give minority parents the power to close failing traditional public schools and replace them with charters, while the SOS-NJ plan is to close off competition to successful traditional schools and stymie the expansion of charters.

Correction: a reader points out (see comments) that the charter legislation supported by SOS-NJ states, "[t]he commissioner shall not approve an application for the establishment of a charter school unless the establishment of the charter school has been approved by the voters of the district at the annual school election in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type II district, or the board of school estimate in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type I district." Here's the actual legislation.

Type I districts have appointed school boards; there are 21 county districts, 8 special services districts, and 21 with mayor-appointed boards. The other 553 school boards are elected by voters.

So some proposed charter schools could bypass voter approval, but they would still need the approval of an appointed school board. Either way, an approval is an unlikely scenario. Trustees would be loathe to approve a charter school because of the fear of loss of funds and kids in Camden still have no alternatives.