What Newark can learn from Camden when it comes to charter schools

     Paymon Rouhanifard addresses a gathering after being named superintendent of Camden Public Schools on Aug. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

    Paymon Rouhanifard addresses a gathering after being named superintendent of Camden Public Schools on Aug. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

    Everyone’s talking about the political upheaval in Newark as Ras Baraka and Shavar Jeffries fight for mayoral control of New Jersey’s largest city.  David Brooks writes in Tuesday’s New York Times that voters face a choice between Baraka’s “transactional, machine-like style of politics” and Shavar Jeffries’ identity as a “reformer, promising to end the favor trading in government and modernize the institution.” The emblem of their battle is school choice. Brooks notes that “charter schools are the main flash point in this divide.”

    Newark politicians and educators might find it instructive to glance south to Camden. It’s still America’s most dangerous city, and its educational evolution will not be televised. But Camden offers a case study, without the histrionic rhetoric, of what happens when long-term academic failure provokes reform and traditional districts make fiscal and structural adaptations.

    This pivot to a hybrid charter/traditional school district requires a realignment of the public school district to one driven by choice, not governmental authority. This shift may be empowering for families and students, but it’s awfully hard on teacher union leaders who are invested in old-time power structures.

    In both Newark and Camden, families are fleeing traditional district schools for other options like public charter schools. In one startling case two years ago, three Camden mothers begged the N.J. State Commissioner to declare Camden City’s traditional schools inadequate and permit different placements for their children. In Newark right now, 40 percent of students who live in Newark’s South Ward, Baraka’s and Jeffries home turf, are on charter school waiting lists.  Parental prerogative requires changes in traditional school finance and facilities as more kids are educated in non-traditional settings.

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    In two years, regardless of who wins the mayoral race, Newark Public Schools will face a $250 million budget gap in its $866 million annual operating budget, not to mention a catalogue of underused buildings.  But the momentum is all Baraka’s as union leaders queue up to protect traditional public school jobs, national union presidents make star appearances, and Superintendent Cami Anderson is hung in effigy.

    Camden’s fiscal situation is equally bleak. Two weeks ago I linked to a memo from Camden Interim Business Administrator Chris Oberg who refers to a projected gap of “tens of millions of dollars” in the district’s total operating budget of $326,556,365 because of reductions in federal funding and historical overreliance on carryover funds.

    Why the shortfall in Camden? It’s Newark writ small.  Over the last several years, more and more Camden parents have chosen to place their children in public charter schools.

    At last count, about 3,500 Camden students attend charter schools — more than one in four, similar proportions to Newark. Camden’s tuition bill to charters this year was $65 million.

    Next year, under the auspices of the Urban Hope Act (a bipartisan bill supported by NJEA that allows up to five new hybrid charters, called “Renaissance Schools,”  in Newark, Camden, and Trenton) highly-regarded  KIPP will bring its charter school network to Camden, eventually providing slots for an additional 2,800 students. Mastery Charter School will also open in Camden (see here), with a projected enrollment of 1,944 children.

    In other words, as space becomes available more than half of Camden City Public Schools‘ parents will choose to send their children to charter schools.

    This sharp drop in enrollment in traditional schools has not, however, resulted in proportional decreases in staff or facilities. This lack of adaptation to a changing educational landscape has less to do with fiscal common sense and more to do with politics and power, not to mention N.J.’s charter schools laws that preclude facilities aid.

    N.J. residents pay the toll. Right now Camden’s annual cost per pupil, according to Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, is about $27,000, $3K over the 2013-2014 budget. That’s not the highest in N.J. — Asbury Park’s annual cost per pupil is over $28K — but it’s close.

    Another way to measure inefficiency in a district undergoing change is through the ratio of students to administrators. Our neediest districts require more oversight, in addition to other resources, so let’s limit our comparisons to other Abbott districts. According to the Department of Education’s most recent data, Jersey City employs one administrator for every 273 students Trenton employs one for every 324 students, and Atlantic City employs one for every 340 students.

    In Camden the ratio is one administrator for every 120 students, an astoundingly high ratio. Newark Central High School, where Baraka is on leave as principal, is also unsustainably top-heavy: the ratio is one administrator for every 156 students.

    Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard quietly explains, “I would argue in the past, the district hasn’t made significant moves as far as reducing personnel and aligning it to correspond with the decline in enrollment.”

    Newark’s Cami Anderson, albeit a more inflammatory personality, makes the same argument and is vilified.

    We could all learn from Camden’s relatively graceful adaption to a public school district driven by student and parent discretion, not political sway.


    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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