Camden case raises the question: What constitutes a toxic school?

Does a child attending a low-performing New Jersey school district — arguably the state’s lowest-performing district — have a constitutional right to pursue a better education elsewhere?

That question was at the heart of a legal hearing held Monday in a nondescript administrative courtroom in Mercerville, where a group of Camden families led by some outspoken advocates have filed a complaint demanding that they be freed from attending Camden schools and instead receive payments to attend schools of their choice, public or private.

The complaint was filed last week with state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, and the hearing was in administrative court to consider a request for immediate relief for the three lead plaintiffs.

The two-hour session ended with the administrative law judge, Edward Delanoy, saying he would make a decision in the coming days.

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But the case, known as Vargas v. Camden Board of Education, involves far bigger questions that could affect far more students, bring in some statewide players, and invoke some hard-fought debates over what exactly is a “thorough and efficient” education as required by the state’s constitution.

A Familiar Complaint

An earlier version of the complaint — Crawford v. Davy — was ultimately dismissed by the state appellate court in 2009, although it left an opening for the case to be argued anew.

The prior case involved 25 districts, many of them urban school systems like Camden that fall under the Abbott v. Burke rulings.

Following the defeat of Crawford, some of the same advocates who led that case returned with the Vargas complaint, narrowing it to Camden schools at a time when the district is in turmoil and subject to intense scrutiny by the Christie administration.

One of those advocates is Patricia Bombelyn, the New Brunswick attorney who led the Crawford case and has been closely aligned with Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), the decade-old group that has largely led the push for private school vouchers in the state. E3 is helping sponsor the challenge.

Her law partner, Martin Perez, was also in attendance. Perez heads up the Latino Leadership Alliance. Also present: Angel Cordero, a Camden activist and former mayoral candidate, and former U.S. Rep. Richard Zimmer, a member of the E3 board.

The bad news about Camden

Monday’s hearing offered a preview of the petitioners’ argument, as Bombelyn and a second attorney representing the petitioners, Julio Gomez, brought out a stack of documents and other evidence demonstrating that Camden is the lowest-performing district in the state.

Of the state’s 70 schools in the bottom fifth percentile of test scores, 23 are in Camden. The graduation rate barely tops 50 percent, and some state officials question whether that is generous. Fewer than 20 percent of elementary and middle school students pass the state tests.

“The picture that is painted of the Camden public schools demonstrates that on all the statutory and regulatory criteria, the district has been failing,” said Bombelyn. “We are asking for our children that that deprivation be removed.”

Attorneys representing the Camden schools focused on the case before the administrative judge, probing whether immediate or emergent relief was warranted, claiming there was no “irreparable harm” to the children and improvements were underway in the district.

Both sides cited a recent report from Cerf that listed the breadth and depth of the district’s problems but also called for a series of changes, starting with the appointment of a new superintendent.

Lester Taylor, the attorney for Camden, said if Cerf believed that a further intervention was warranted, “he could have and should have” said so in that report.

“Does this just open the door to all 12,000 students?” he said. “To the point where the Camden schools doesn’t exist anymore, replaced by a voucher system?”

Most of the back and forth — including with Delanoy — dealt with whether these specific children were in harm’s way if the judge and, in turn, Cerf did not act now.

Bombelyn and Gomez argued that one of the three children in the case, a seventh grader, had already failed the state’s reading tests twice and his grades were dropping. For the defense, Taylor said failing a reading test in not in itself irreparable harm.

The petitioners said it went beyond one child or even three, that the school’s larger problems speak to a systemic failure to provide students an opportunity to succeed.

Gomez cited the Abbott case that has led to billions in additional resources and programs in the schools due to the state’s failure to fund schools sufficiently to provide an adequate education in those districts.

“The Supreme Court never asked how [lead plaintiff] Raymond Abbott was doing in class,” Gomez said. “What mattered was what the school was doing, what the district was doing.”

At one dramatic moment, Bombelyn described how Barack Obama could never have become president if he attended Camden schools.

Delanoy tried to keep it to the emergent relief request before him, at one point probing Taylor on the state of Camden schools.

“We know today that Camden schools are not performing up to speed,” he said. “That is not a speculative issue.”

But he then asked Bombelyn and Gomez whether attending Camden schools in itself represented a deprivation of students’ rights, even if they may be getting good grades and succeeding by standard measures.

“Is just the fact they are sitting in the classroom, is that all that is needed?” he said.

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