Instead of Camden & Newark Charter School Cacophony, Let's Listen to Parent Voices

Over the last couple of weeks, elders associated with anti-choice lobbying groups have mounted attacks on the expansion of hybrid charter/traditional schools, also known as “renaissance schools,” in Camden, NJ.

In doing so, these lobbying groups dance to their own music in the keys of money (Education Law Center), control (Save Our Schools), union dominance (NJEA and Newark Teachers Union), and adult employment protection (NJ Communities United). In doing so, they ignore the voices of the families and children that they pretend to represent.

Some of these attacks are technical. For example, Education Law Center, committed to protecting its Abbott turf, claims (falsely) that the new renaissance schools in Camden are segregatory:
All of the charter schools’ enrollments exceed the district’s 92% rate of students who qualify for free and reduced priced lunch. However, data from the Camden district does not break out those students who qualify for free lunch, with household incomes below 130% of the federal poverty level...
Some of the attacks are flat-out bizarre. For example, the head of PR for the Camden Education Association (also a member of Our Schools) claims that improving schools in the city will lead to gentrification:
With “renaissance schools,” the facade that education in Camden is “better” or “improved” is set, and pols hope it is enough to attract people who ordinarily are scared off by sending their children to public schools attended by low-income, minority children.
All may be fair in love and war but turf battles don't help anyone but gang leaders. What if we simply listened to the voices of people who live in cities that have historically lacked access to effective schools? Instead of false narratives (and they come from all sides), what if we resolved to be directed by the righteous needs and beliefs of people on the ground?

In a poll released today by the non-profit Education Post (full disclosure: I do some consulting for them), 72% of African-American  parents believe that “public charter schools offer parents in low-income communities options for quality schools that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.”

Nationally, 65% of parents agree; the numbers are slightly lower for white parents (63%) and slightly higher for Hispanic parents (69%).

In Newark and Camden, N.J.’s two most active charter school environments, the demand for charter school seats can’t keep up with demand. From today’s editorial in the Star-Ledger:
Parents lined up on charter waiting lists, thousands deep, are speaking loud and clear: They want these high-performing schools, and they want more of them. The only thing standing in the way is the need for new space.
The numbers bear this out. During the first round of the universal enrollment program called One Newark, 42% of Newark parents listed a charter as their first choice. Four and a half thousand  families listed North Star or KIPP as their first choice, but there were only 1,800 slots.

Parents want access to great public schools and it doesn’t much matter whether you label them charter, traditional, or renaissance. And, as the Education Post poll indicates, they can speak for themselves.

Here, for example, is Ms. Lakeia Jackson, a Camden parent with a six-year-old son who attends the brand new KIPP school that so enrages NJ Communities United, ELC, SOS, and NJEA.
I saw the column by Trina Scordo, executive director of NJ Communities United, about how she thinks Renaissance schools are not the answer, and as a Camden resident and parent I totally disagree.
My 6-year-old son attends KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, and his experience last year and this year has been incredible. The school’s reading program is actually fun for my son, his reading had grown from kindergarten- to almost second-grade level, which is incredible since he’s still in first grade. 
There are also lots of ways for parents to get involved. I and a few other parents have become very much involved with the school and we are the parent leaders for the new parents this year. 
Believe it or not, the best part about KIPP is Saturday school. I never would have thought my son or I would get excited about going to school on Saturday, but KIPP has games and fun activities that make us really feel good about going to school together, which also gives the scholars and parents an opportunity to meet-and-greet and make new friends. My son attends school in a new, beautiful building. So I fully support Renaissance schools in Camden. 
Lakeia Jackson
Despite the convictions of families like the Jacksons, lobbyists continue to protect treasured turf. This isn't unique to N.J.; today the Wall St. Journal quotes  Natasha Brown, a Boston mother who spent five years getting her kids into charter schools while lawmakers debate new caps on growth. Ms. Brown says, "people are realizing that charters are doing something that the public schools aren’t making the mark on."

"I fully support Renaissance schools in Camden." "Charters are doing something the public schools aren't." And, from the EdPost poll, "parents are more likely to say public charter schools offer low-income communities options than they are to say that public charters take resources and high-achieving students away from traditional public schools."

The  voices of Ms. Jackson and Ms. Brown should shape our vision of public school districts, not the atonal propaganda of lobbying groups. This shouldn't be a turf war or even a revolution. But it must be an evolution, played in the key of families.

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