Camden’s rejection of private school managers highlights bigger debate over urban education

 This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Over the last week a remarkable story has unfolded in Camden, N.J. At the Camden City Public School Board’s most recent meeting on Tuesday, board members considered four applicants for N.J.’s newly-legislated Urban Hope Act and voted them all down.

The Urban Hope Act (pdf), signed by Gov. Chris Christie this past January, allows non-profits to build, manage, and operate up to four “renaissance” schools in three long-suffering school districts: Camden, Newark, and Trenton. Four organizations applied for Camden’s new Renaissance “district,” including one highly-regarded organization called KIPP, which runs some of Newark’s most successful charter schools. After six hours in closed session the Board members, in a move that surprised just about everyone (including the Camden mayor, who appointed them), rejected KIPP’s application by a split vote of 4-4, with one abstention.

This outcome is noteworthy on several levels, and the story itself elucidates one of the thorniest dilemmas that stump people who value public education. When faced with a chronically failing school system like Camden, should the priority be providing children with immediate relief from a district where the majority of the students never master basic academic skills? Or should the priority be lengthy efforts to rebuild the whole system? Does the urgency of the plight of current students trump long-term fixes, or is it the other way around?

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This conundrum was put into sharp relief this week in Camden, especially in the context of some new documents up on Camden City Public Schools’ website. These reports are a brave and honest assessment of the district’s predicament. They also detail necessary corrective steps, some of which involve cultural and procedural changes which, by definition, will take years to implement.

Here are a few excerpts from one part of the report, the Needs Analysis, which was completed on August 12th.”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.”

“The district has struggled unsuccessfully for years to serve a very needy student population despite the expenditure of significant resources. Student achievement across the district is abysmal, and the state recently identified 23 Camden schools, out of 27 in the district, among the lowest performing in the state.”

“Instructional rigor is low across the district. During the [classroom] walkthroughs we conducted, we found that the vast majority of lessons operate at the lowest levels of rigor.” 

“The policies, systems, processes, and structures needed to educate children in a mid-size urban district are loosely formulated, misaligned, poorly implemented, or simply non-existent.”

The authors of the report, led by Interim Superintendent Reuben Mills, seem determined to reinvent a school system that has failed its students for decades. That commitment is displayed in its unflinching look at the prospect of more public school choice for Camden’s students in the form of charter schools, just like those rejected by the Camden School Board on Tuesday. The Needs Analysis notes that the district “faces student enrollment competition” from charters, which will “undoubtedly be attractive options for parents and students desperate for quality options.” That competition will “yield a further loss of revenue.” Yet the authors of the report never pose that competition as a zero-sum game, an all-or-nothing battle that necessitates a choice between the urgent needs of current students and the long-term needs of district sustainability.There’s an irony here: it’s hard to imagine the authors of the Needs Analysis voting to deny an immediate educational rescue to some of Camden’s children, like the School Board did on Tuesday. And therein, perhaps, is an insight to that thorny dilemma of public education advocates: one can strive to find a balance between the urgent need to rebuild a broken system with the equally urgent need to permit school choice for children currently trapped in a dysfunctional system.

The Camden School Board has something to learn from its own district’s Needs Analysis.

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.


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