Ever seen an old, worn-down punching bag hanging lonely in the back corner of a run-down gym? That’s Camden, which has repeatedly suffered blow after blow following years of negligence, public corruption and gross incompetence.
It was delivered another body blow on Thursday, when news broke that in an effort to cut costs, Camden School District will lay off about 400 people, 300 coming directly from schools.
Noted in the news was the fact that enrollment has declined by nearly 1,000 over the last five years, making the current budget unsustainable. That decline isn’t serendipitous or surprising – kids are increasingly being shifted to the 10 charter schools operating within the district. Four more charters have been recently approved.
In fact, back in March 2013, then-interim superintendent Reuben Mills told school board members that while he wanted to do everything possible to keep students enrolled in traditional schools, he expected about 900 students be lost to new charters.
In 2012-13, Camden’s charter schools enrolled 22.4 percent of all public students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 3,644 students are enrolled in Camden charter schools, up from 2,545 just five years ago.
There are your 1,000 students, seems Mills was right on the money. Expect things to get worse, not better, for Camden’s public schools.
Since then, the state has taken over Camden’s schools, replaced most of its administrators and installed Paymon Rouhanifard as its superintendent, reinforcing the city’s shift towards charter schools which Christie and his Democratic allies have supported. Thanks to the Urban Hope Act, KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program) will open the new KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy – New Jersey’s first renaissance school – in Camden next year, eventually enrolling up to 2,800 students. Mastery Charter Schools is also slated to open in Camden next year, proving room for another 1,944 students. And so on and so on.
Charter schools in Camden aren’t just draining students – they’re draining money, close to $66 million worth in 2013-14, compared with just just $52 million the year before. Next year, Camden has budgeted $72 million to transfer to charters. There’s your $75 million shortfall.
You can calculate the math on the back of a napkin. When students leave Camden’s traditional public schools, the money follows them out the door. Meanwhile, the school district is left with the same staffing levels and costs to maintain. Hence the unsurprising budget cuts.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating the status quo. Who could in a city like Camden, with a history of corrupt administrators and endemic failure? After all, Camden has the state’s lowest performing school district. Twenty-three of Camden’s 26 schools make the state’s list of its 70 worst schools and less than half of the city’s high school students graduate.
Nor am I saying charter schools are inherently terrible or universally bad. Part of the problem public schools have faced are the entrenched, slow-moving interests of unions, themselves handicapping the very teachers they’re designed to protect. In Camden’s case, public corruption, public cheating on tests and unjustified cash bonuses for school officials are just some of the recent scandals to plague the downtrodden district.
Charters do have the advantage of selecting their students, allowing them to cherry-pick the best and brightest while relegating students in need to decreasingly-funded public schools. Is it any wonder charters tend to outperform their public school counterparts?
All I’m saying is don’t get behind a podium and pretend the declining enrollment in Camden schools isn’t premeditated, planned and encouraged by all the major stakeholders involved in determining the city’s education future.
Soon, half of all Camden students will attend charter schools, a fact everyone designing education policy for your kids already knows.
So next year, when Rouhanifard approaches the podium to outlay the next round to teacher cuts, you’ll know why. If you live in Camden, I hope your kid was lucky enough to be accepted into a charter. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe.