How ELC is Like the NRA (Hold Your Fire!)

Education Law Center announced last week that it would sue both Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie if either makes a decision regarding the oversight of Newark Public Schools. Executive Director David Sciarra told the Star-Ledger, "I have no doubt appropriate legal action would be taken on behalf of the residents of Newark to challenge such a move in court." Dr. Paul Trachtenberg, founder of ELC, agreed, adding that “ the notion of Booker having any sort of role controlling the Newark Public Schools raises "’a lot of concerns at a lot of levels.’" He also told Education Week that the Christie-Booker proposal was "an effort to totally blur the lines" of authority over Newark schools.

What does one make of the fact that this noble organization, dedicated to improving educational outcomes for poor urban students, is steadfastly opposing a large infusion of cash into one of NJ’s most struggling districts? Newark is where ELC has its offices. Newark is where the highest-performing schools happen to be charter schools (that’s not always the case; it is in Newark) and current successful charter operators there have already promised to expand capacity and open their doors to more students. Isn’t this sort of development beneficial to the very students that ELC defends? Even NJEA’s leadership, which usually holds positions indistinguishable from ELC’s, just conceded that there is “an important role for high-quality public charter schools to play in the overall effort to provide a great public school for every child.”

Is this some kind of good cop-bad cop strategy, with NJEA playing the role of progressive while ELC stridently defends a non-blurry, bold-stroked party line? Or has ELC becoming the NRA?

Stay with us here. The NRA is hard-core, pugilistically upholding the 200+ year old Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms, in spite of the fact that uzis and assault weapons were not yet a gleam in the Founding Fathers’ eyes. ELC is hard-core as well, adamantly opposed to anything that could be perceived as a threat to the decades-old Abbot decisions that mandated vast increases in school aid to poor urban kids. This is in spite of the fact that 25 years of increased funding has not led to higher achievement, and that new state regulations control district spending, rendering the Abbott decisions obsolete.

In either case, compromise is regarded as capitulation and ambiguity is a form of weakness. Neither organization seems capable of incorporating new information (availability of guns and gang violence; ineffectiveness of extra money without meaningful education reform) into ossified mission statements. No blurring (supporting bans on assault weapons; acknowledging that some poor students might benefit from innovative charter schools) will be tolerated; it’s all bold lines, and stark edges.

Now imagine if ELC, still powerful and esteemed, opened a charter school in Newark. See it: David Sciarra and Paul Trachtenberg sit down with Acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks and propose the Education Law Center Academy (ELCA), maybe jointly sponsored by ELC and Rutgers. It’s a high school that prepares Newark students for the study or law. All the teachers are union members and NJEA is happy. Famous lawyers give guest lectures. Services expand to include preschools for ELCA younger siblings. Rutgers offers classroom space and college-level opportunities. Funding comes pouring in. No longer trapped in a local optimum, ELC’s new endeavor is so successful that it expands its charter and opens ELCA’s in Trenton, Paterson, and Camden.

It’s a partnership. It’s not a battle over 30-year court briefings. Let’s get past preoccupations with fuzziness and into the business of educating poor urban children. Arguing over niggling issues of governance is so last year. If ELC wants to remain NJ’s moral compass on educational equity, it will find its inner reformer and step up to the plate.

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