Usual suspects mounting opposition to Camden charter school expansion

 Camden New Jersey (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Camden New Jersey (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Philadelphia’s Mastery Charter Schools is hoping to run a school in Camden. This week, Camden Public Schools announced that is now accepting applications from charter operators. But despite Mastery’s track-record, not everyone is excited by this idea.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this week that New Jersey’s Education Law Center (ELC), the primary advocate for New Jersey’s 31 poor Abbott districts, believes that the Camden Board of Education should not approve any more charter schools and instead focus on facilities repairs.

It’s not so hard to divine the politics of ELC’s anti-charter school stance. After all, the non-profit has made its bones lobbying for equitable school funding in the traditional public school sector and is closely allied with anti-choice groups that look askance at progressive instructional models. ELC was also one of the very few opponents to the Urban Hope Act, a 2011 bipartisan piece of legislation that allows non-profits to build up to four new schools in Camden, Trenton, and Newark, subject to approval by the local school board.

Camden’s new request for applications is under the aegis of the Urban Hope Act. (Background here.) This past summer, after a convoluted and incompetent process, the Camden School Board narrowly approved one Urban Hope charter called the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a collaboration between the highly-regarded KIPP TEAM charter schools in Newark and Cooper University Hospital.

While the politics behind ELC’s opposition to further charter school development in Camden are relatively clear, it’s disheartening that the organization seems willing to sacrifice educational options for a few hundred of Camden’s 13,000 students.

Here’s the predicament of the average third grade Camden elementary school student at (randomly chosen) Dudley Elementary School on Berwick Street, which serves about 600 kids in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, If you look on the N.J. Department of Education’s School Performance Report, test results for third-grade students in language arts are replaced with this: “data is suppressed to protect the confidentiality of the students.” This means that either no child at Dudley or very few children at Dudley reached the level of “proficiency” in 3rd grade reading.

Third grade reading scores are widely recognized to be indicators of future academic success. A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation called “Early Warning: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters” found that students who can’t read by third grade are three are four times less likely to graduate high school on time. The odds drop to six times less likely for students from low-income families. Another study from Northeastern University found that high school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be imprisoned than students who finish high school.

In other words, students who are stuck in Dudley Elementary School are unlikely to graduate high school on time and more likely to be incarcerated.

But, says Education Law Center, let’s repair the buildings instead of offering families educationally sound options.

If that option is a school run by Mastery Charter Schools, it could be a good one. Mastery is one of the most successful charter operators in the country. It built its reputation in nearby Philadelphia, just across the river. Here’s a description of Mastery’ program from an ad currently running for a Camden principal:

“Mastery currently operates fifteen schools in Philadelphia serving a total of 9,500 students in grades K-12. The graduating class of 2012 boasts both a 97% college acceptance rate and over $10.6M in college scholarships. Mastery is opening its first expansion region schools in Camden, NJ, with the goal of closing the achievement gap in additional communities and creating a network of exceptionally high performing urban schools that demonstrate that all students can succeed and achieve at the highest level.”

There are lots of knotty problems in public education. This isn’t one of them. A few hundred young schoolchildren will most likely have options other than Dudley Elementary School. Education Law Center should join in the excitement and drop its opposition to public school choice in Camden.

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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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