The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools just released a list of this year’s “Charter Champions,” nineteen legislators across the country who exemplify the values espoused by those who recognize that our traditional education system inadequately serves all children. Of those nineteen legislators, two hail from New Jersey, State Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) and U.S. Senator Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark.
If you’re a fan of improving access to quality public schools for children of color and children from impoverished homes, then you’re a fan of Assemblyman Singleton and Senator Booker. Their respective legislative efforts have accomplished more for schoolchildren in Camden and Newark (N.J.’s most educationally-troubled cities) than any progressive school funding formula or traditional intervention can provide.
”I believe that students should be given the opportunity to academically succeed in whatever vehicle ensures that success,” said Assemblyman Singleton. “Simply relying on just one manner in which we deliver education in our country does a disservice to our future generations. An all of the above strategy focused on student success and less on the vehicle that delivers upon that success will keep our children moving forward and achieving more.”
One of those other vehicles, of course, is public charter schools. In New Jersey, Singleton, who serves as Vice Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, is probably most well-known for adding seats to an innovative legislative vehicle specifically for Camden, which in 2013 earned the ignominious title of “Most Dangerous City in America” (This year its ranking improved to fourth.) Camden’s traditional education system has a long history of similar notoriety. From a 2012 report commissioned by the city School Board:
Despite spending more per pupil than almost any district in the country, Camden schools have failed to serve their students effectively for years. This is not the fault of any individual or group: There are many passionate, hard-working teachers and administrators throughout Camden. But they have been working in a broken system that has lacked effective leadership for too long.
Troy Singleton almost single-handedly created respite for Camden families by persuading legislators in both the Assembly and the Senate to extend by one year a law called the Urban Hope Act. This original law permitted a time-limited authorization of new hybrid charter-district schools in Newark, Trenton, and Camden. Only Camden availed itself of this opportunity to create “renaissance schools” operated by top-performing charter groups Mastery, KIPP, and Uncommon but needed an extra year, which Singleton's law provided. Currently thirty-four percent of Camden students attend schools in the charter sector, about 5,000 in “regular” charters and another 2,700 in renaissance schools authorized through the Urban Hope Act.The renaissance schools are, open to all children in their catchment areas. Parents enroll through a universal enrollment system created by state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard.
“Assemblyman Troy Singleton is not a supporter of charter public schools,” said NAPCS director Ron Rice, Jr. “He is an outspoken supporter of quality schools for all children and he does not differentiate between public delivery systems. I have known and worked with Troy on many issues and his bottom line has always been what works best for the families and constituents he represents. Assemblyman Singleton deserves this award because he is a champion for people and for the principle that a great education can be one’s passport to the future.”
Some Americans are only recently familiar with Senator Cory Booker. We New Jerseyans, especially those of us who either live or spend much time in Newark, have long regarded him as a champion of poor urban schoolchildren (and are accustomed to his habit of rescuing people from burning buildings and then tweeting about it to three million followers). He is fiercely committed to equitable access to quality schools, regardless of type of governance. As Mayor of Newark, he made the expansion of public charters a top priority, facilitating a $100 million grant from Facebook (which, by the way, represents only one-tenth of Newark’s annual school budget) and laying the foundation for a vastly transformed school district.
Senator Booker is no Johnny-come-lately to the urgency of school options. Almost ten years ago, while Newark families were desperate for scant educational opportunities, he said, “for too long we've looked at charter schools and traditional public schools as separate...But [they are] part of the same system ...there is not one path but a need for an interwoven set of strategies.”
When Booker left for D.C., some worried that school improvements would regress. Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, told the Associated Press, “If Booker goes to the Senate, then suddenly Newark is another high spending, low-performing struggling community.”
But Hess was wrong. Booker’s reforms have been sustained. Currently thirty-one percent of Newark children attend public charter schools and student outcomes are up across the traditional and charter sectors. In fact, a recent study conducted by the Center for Reinventing Public Education shows that among 50 cities studied, only eight percent of public schools “beat the odds” but in Newark that percentage soared to forty percent, solely due to the educational advantages afforded to charter school students.
“Senator Cory Booker is nothing short of courageous when it comes to fighting for educational options for communities that have, historically, had the least amount of quality options in their daily lives,” Ron Rice of NAPCS told me. “ Many politicians talk about making catalytic change in education and Senator Booker has been one of the few public servants to actually fight for and bring change. He is a charter champion because he does not accept mediocrity in himself and his service and he has stood up against forces that would allow mediocrity to exist in the education systems created for our children.”
Imagine this: ten percent of this year’s NAPCS Charter Champions hail from the Garden State. Not too shabby for the bridge and tunnel crowd. And especially propitious for families in Camden and Newark.