Meet NJ's Next Governor Who Will Vote For a National Charter School Moratorium on Saturday

Allow me to take a wild guess: New Jersey’s newly-anointed next governor Phil Murphy has never stepped foot in a charter school. Yet on Saturday, he, along with the rest of the NAACP National Board, will vote to call for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools.

Now allow me a wish: that Mr. Murphy had spent an afternoon last week, as I did, with a young man named Chris Eley. Chris grew up in one of Newark’s southward low-income housing areas, sharing a three-bedroom, one-bathroom  apartment with nine other people, including two loving parents and two brothers. In the winter his extended family had no hot water; they first had a working shower when he turned twenty years old.

 As a young boy Chris attended Camden St. Elementary School, a traditional Newark public school  where 17% of third-graders read at grade-level. He was in the gifted and talented program, spending afternoons in the public library reading about paleontology and was bullied for being a “nerd.” “School felt like a prison,” he told me. “It didn’t have anything to do with learning.”

Chris’s parents were effective, resourceful advocates. When he was ready for 8th grade they filled out an application for TEAM Academy, a Newark public charter school run by KIPP. Despite having to repeat 7th grade in order to catch up with his classmates, he recounted to me the sense of “immersing myself in a community, in a whole new world” where “the academics were challenging.”

For Chris and his family, KIPP was a life-saver.  For many education advocates I've spoken to, NAACP’s anti-charter position is counter-intuitive.  More than 160 African-American education leaders have signed a letter opposing the call for a moratorium.  Parents are outraged. Chris Stewart reports that “every day more people are signing on and becoming more resolute about not allowing a retail civil rights organization to sell us down a river. But, to date, the NAACP has shown no interest in meeting with black people that disagree with them — even after repeated requests.”

Derrell Bradford writes today in The 74 that “NAACP’s long-standing resistance to empowering families with school choice remains antiquated and deeply wrongheaded.” Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School Shoemaker in Philadelphia, calls the vote “alarming and unjust”; he suggests that those puzzled by the anti-choice leanings of this once-proud organization “follow the money,” which leads to anti-charter teacher union leaders who fund NAACP. (For more reactions from African-American leaders, see Education Post’s round-up.)

And here’s another  riddle: how did governor-designee Phil Murphy end up as one of the Deciders?

Murphy is white. He went to Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He worked for twenty years at Goldman Sachs, retiring as a Senior Director with a multi-million dollar net worth. He lives in Middletown, NJ on a 6-acre riverfront estate with an estimated value of $9.6 million. He and his wife exercised a form of school choice available to (very) high-income parents: his children went to a N.J.  private school called  Rumson Country Day School (annual tuition: $29,000) and then to private Phillips Academy Andover boarding school (annual tuition: $54, 000).

Yet Murphy gets to decide whether the powerful NAACP takes a position about whether kids like Chris Eley get to go to public charter schools that offer challenging academic programs or whether they remain “in prison” in chronically-failing traditional schools. What’s wrong with this picture?

Maybe it’s as clear as day. Some of you non-New Jerseyans may be wondering why we’re all so sure who will succeed Chris Christie a year from now. That’s because most of the time the Garden State, at least in gubernatorial elections, practices an arcane form of democracy where party bosses, not real people,  decide who wins primaries.  As Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger wrote this weekend, after the other top Democratic contenders for governor abruptly dropped out of a race that officially hasn’t started yet and NJEA made an early endorsement,
Murphy won this thing because he spent a ton of money out of the gate, lending his campaign $10 million and funding a "think-tank" to punch out policy ideas. And the party bosses know he's willing to spend tons more, including writing big checks for them. 
"We saw it with Corzine, and we're seeing it now," says Brigid Harrison of Montclair State University. "On a gut level, that tells me something is seriously wrong.”

Similarly, the NAACP top bosses will disregard real people -- Chris Eley’s parents, for example -- when on Saturday they decide to bend to the will of union funders and lobby for the extinction of a form of school choice that non-millionaires can afford.

I wish that Murphy would consider spending an afternoon with Chris Eley who, at the ripe old age of 23, is a budding entrepreneur, real estate agent, motivational speaker, artist, and philanthropist. (If he or Chris is pressed for time, Murphy can go to Chris’ website or read his forthcoming book Become What You Seek.) Is that too much to ask for the privileged few who will cast a vote on Saturday for real people who don’t live on riverfront estates and send their kids to private school?

On a gut level, something is seriously wrong.

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