From Abbott to Vergara: Irony in Camden

This week I had a column in NJ Spotlight about  the upcoming anniversary of the Abbott v. Burke cases, specifically Abbott II, in which the State Supreme Court ordered fair funding of N.J.’s poorest school districts. The Court noted in its ruling in 1990 that “without educational reform, the money may accomplish nothing.” I noted the irony of the Education Law Center’s recent crusade against educational reform in Camden, despite the fact that this organization litigated the Abbott cases.

Today Blue Jersey has a post about a meeting last night in Camden featuring David Sciarra, executive director of Education Law Center (ELC), and Julia Sass Rubin, founder of Save Our Schools-NJ, who are working together to stymy public education reform efforts in Camden, NJ’s worst district.

Under the auspices of the Urban Hope Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation supported by NJEA, Camden Public Schools is creating hybrid “renaissance schools” in collaboration with highly-regarded charters Mastery, KIPP, and Uncommon. Parents can sign their kids up for seats or stick with traditional district schools and SOS and ELC, according to Blue Jersey, are “now trying to rally parents to share information that will discourage families from signing up… This is potentially a bridge strategy until education politics at the state level dramatically change… The strategy is to keep students out of Renaissance school seats.”

In other words, ELC, which fought for the educational rights of Camden’s students for decades, is now fighting to keep them in the very schools they disparaged during the Abbott litigation.

But the irony is bigger than this. You can draw a direct line from the nation’s civil rights movement (which barred racial discrimination) to Brown v. Board of Education (which barred separate schools for black and white students) to Abbott v. Burke (which barred inequitable funding between poor and rich districts). More recently, that line extends to Vergara v. California, which bars instructional inequity (poor students have the same rights as wealthy students to instructional effectiveness) and to the similar case in New York State.

ELC’s vigorous battle against educational improvements in Camden is both political and fiscal. As parents choose to move their kids to superior district schools – and the Urban Hope Act schools are, indeed, district schools – the traditional publics wills suffer from loss of enrollment and revenue, which ELC appears to perceive as a direct threat to its legacy.

If this were all about kids, then you’d think ELC and SOS would applaud the implementation of a system that provides better choices for families. But it’s not: it’s about money and power and preservation of a system that ELC railed against twenty-five years ago. Now that’s irony.

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