Fight over Camden charter schools shouldn’t be politicized

Just under two years ago, a group of Camden parents filed a class action complaint with then-New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. The parents alleged that placement in the dismally-performing Camden Public Schools violated their children’s constitutionally-guaranteed right to a “thorough and effective education system.”

Last week, a group of parents filed a complaint with current N.J. Education Commissioner David Hespe alleging that the D.O.E.’s approval of two new charter schools in Camden violated constitutional and procedural regulations by not considering the “financial and segregative impact” on Camden Public Schools.

It’s deja vu all over again. While the two parent groups hold opposing positions — the first group pleads for alternatives to traditional public schools and the latter group argues for the preservation of traditional public schools — both legal filings teem with political posturing that has nothing to do with what’s best for kids.

Vargas et.al. v. Camden City Board of Education, the complaint filed two years earlier, begged the state for alternatives to a school system described by the D.O.E. as “in crisis.” For example, one of the children represented in the suit, twelve-year-old Keanu Vargas, was a seventh-grader at Pyne Poynt Family School. According to the New Jersey D.O.E., no child at Pyne Poynt that year passed the state basic proficiency tests and 42 percent of the student body was suspended.

The parents in this complaint were represented by Patricia Bombelyn, a New Brunswick attorney associated with a campaign for voucher legislation called The Opportunity Scholarship Act, and a pro-voucher group called Education Excellence for Everyone (E3). At a press conference the parents were joined by Angel Cordero, a Camden activist who ran for mayor in 2009. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted Mr. Cordero, who now works with the Community Education Resource Network in East Camden: “This is a way to let them know that the Opportunity Scholarship Act should have been passed.” In other words, the complaint was motivated by politics.

The current group of parents, who unite under the banner “Save Camden Schools (SCS),” is fighting the D.O.E.’s approval of two new hybrid “renaissance” schools, Mastery and Uncommon. SCS is represented by Richard Shapiro, a Princeton attorney associated with NJEA, Education Law Center, and Save Our Schools-NJ. All these organizations lobby against the expansion of charter schools.  At their press conference this week, the parents were joined by Gary C. Frazier, who wants to be Camden County freeholder.

(The ties between SCS and Save Our Schools-NJ (SOSNJ) are unclear. Mo’neke Ragsdale, a spokeswoman for SCS, says that her group is a “spinoff” of SOSNJ. However, according to NJ Spotlight, “statewide leaders contend that SOSNJ has no role in the challenge.”)

A little more politics: Freeholder candidate Gary C. Frazier, who has a record for heroin possession (here’s his mug shot) has an active Facebook presence. Two samples:

“Mastery and uncommon i wouldn’t get cummfy!! You play with bulls we gone bring the horns…oh btw…Pyne Poynte was personal to me…i graduated 8th grade there..you have our children divided and we gone bring your house down!!”

And,

“ITS REAL IN CAMDEN OK AND TIME TO KICK A COUPLE COWBOYS ASSES CLEAN UP OUTTA HERE!…VOTE FOR GARY C. FRAZIER JR. FOR CAMDEN COUNTY FREEHOLDER IN NOVEMBER!!”

Let’s get serious. Education and politics are hoary old friends, but surely we can distinguish between educational opportunity and political ambition. Before Mastery and Uncommon even came on the scene, 3,500 of Camden City’s 15,000 students were enrolled in charter schools, with many more on waiting lists Charters are an established part of the educational landscape, not a fad. Better yet, these new renaissance schools are hybrids, a “third way” of offering educational options that skirts the politically-charged, bifurcated narrative of charter school vs. traditional school.

As Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard writes in his set of initiatives called “The Camden Commitment,” “students must have access to good schools. Whether those schools are organized traditionally or as public charter schools, or as some hybrid of the two is of little concern to everyone who needs them.”

These are schoolchildren, not gateways to political office, and Camden’s litigious spectacles are getting tiresome. Let’s get out of the echo chamber and focus on meeting children’s educational needs.

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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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