Commentary: How Camden’s renaissance schools differ from charters

There’s been lots of chatter during the last few months from those who resent the expansion of school choice in Camden. For example, Diane Ravitch, titled her post on Monday “Privatization of Camden N.J. Public Schools Accelerates.”  The triumvirate of NJEA, Save Our Schools-NJ, and Education Law Center has railed against the establishment of district/charter hybrids in Camden under the aegis of a 2012 law called the Urban Hope Act. (NJEA originally supported the bill but pulled back when an amendment left out hefty pension bonuses for Camden teachers.)

These charter/district hybrids, called “renaissance schools,” inscribed in the Urban Hope Act offer a great opportunity to examine the impact of educational options for poor families.  (Rich families already have lots of options.) We have decades of data quantifying the academic growth of Camden students within the traditional public school district. What happens when those students are offered other public choices and the customary anti-charter imprecations — charters “cream off” top-performing students, charters discriminate against students with disabilities or those new to the English language — don’t apply?

First, it’s important to understand the differences and similarities between traditional charter schools and renaissance schools.

Renaissance schools in Camden (the Urban Hope Act also included Trenton and Newark as potential sites) are approved by the local Board of Education, which solicits requests for proposals. Traditional charter operators apply to the N.J. Education Commissioner. Last year Camden approved applications from the non-profits Mastery, Uncommon, and KIPP.

Unlike traditional charters that can draw students from wide catchment areas, renaissance schools enroll students from local neighborhoods. For example, students who attended Bonsall, where 91 percent of students can’t read or do math at grade level, will now attend Camden Prep, part of the Uncommon charter school network. Children who attend the chronically-failing Rafael Cordero Molina Elementary School, which lacks a modern cafeteria, gym, or play area, will become Mastery students. (Mastery will completely renovate the 100-year-old building.)  Children who attend J.G. Whittier Family School, where the main entrance is wrapped in caution tape, will attend school in the brand-new KIPP-Cooper-Norcross Academy in Lanning Square. 

Any parent who wants his or her child to go to a traditional Camden district school will have that option. 

Traditional charter schools in New Jersey are funded at up to 90 percent of the per pupil rate, although some charters in N.J. make do with as little as 68 percent. Renaissance schools, according to Urban Hope Act regulations, receive 95 percent of per pupil costs. Traditional charter schools in N.J. are on their own with facilities costs. Renaissance schools are eligible for building incentives.

Like all N.J. charter schools, renaissance schools adhere to the Common Core State Standards and administer PARCC annual standardized student assessments. And, like all charter schools, teachers choose whether or not to unionize. Also, charter and renaissance administrators have far more flexibility over school calendars, salary increases, instructional time, and retention of great teachers without regard to seniority.

Hence, no “creaming” of high-performing students or those with special needs, no dickering over funding, no infringement of local control, no increase in segregation. The typical anti-charter blather is rendered flaccid.

But the devil’s in the data. How many students will have access to N.J.’s constitutional promise of a “thorough and effective” public education system? For example, at J.G.  Whittier Family School, according to the most recent D.O.E. data, 83 percent of students fail basic skills tests in reading. How will those students fare at their new KIPP renaissance school?  

We’ll know the answers to these questions in five to ten years. Perhaps we’ll also be able to dial down the denigration of public school choice for needy families.

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Laura Waters is vice 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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