Plan for more charter schools sparks unfair criticism against Camden

 Camden Public Schools administration building. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

Camden Public Schools administration building. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

Is the opening of more charter schools in Camden City a cause for celebration or legal action? If you ask an organization called Save Our Schools-New Jersey, it’s the latter.

On Monday Susan Cauldwell, Executive Director of SOS-NJ, sent this letter to N.J. Commissioner of Education David Hespe alleging that Camden Public Schools (CPS) is violating the Urban Hope Act, which opened the door for additional charter schools in Camden, Newark and Trenton.

SOS-NJ wants the state’s Department of Education to investigate whether Camden is going beyond its authority to help Mastery Charter Schools and Uncommon Schools (both charter school operators) settle in. (Full disclosure: my older son was a teacher for a Mastery school in Philadelphia)

Here are three of SOS-NJ’s allegations.

1) Camden is allowing the charter schools to operate in temporary facilities and SOS claims this violates the Urban Hope Act.

2) Camden Public Schools sent out letters to parents “promoting” Mastery Charters schools.

3) Camden Public Schools shared confidential pupil information with Mastery Charter Schools because “Mastery representatives came to their homes to encourage them to enroll their children in the Renaissance school.”

Let’s see how the facts square with SOS-NJ’s opposition to educational options for Camden students and families.

The Urban Hope Act (UHA), a bipartisan school choice bill approved overwhelming by the Legislative last year with the full-throated support of NJEA, specifies that newly-opened “renaissance schools” – hybrid charter/district schools – must buy and/or build their own facilities. The regulations also state that  Urban Hope charters can avail themselves of facilities contingency plans  “if the renaissance school is unable to open as determined during the preparedness assessments” (N.J.AC. 6A:31-1.2).

This is precisely the plan for Mastery as well as Uncommon Schools, another renaissance school set to open in September. A Camden official explained that while the Urban Hope Act requires newly constructed schools, the “regulations recognize that there may be some logistical issues prohibiting an approved renaissance school to build a new school and obtain a certificate of occupancy before the start of a school year.”

“Mastery and Uncommon are in the same boat,” explained the official. “Once approved, it will be nearly impossible for the two providers to construct new, multi-million dollar facilities before September.  The District has thus identified ‘temporary’ space in existing school facilities that both projects can use while the new schools are under construction. This temporary space will be identified in the ‘contingency plan’ which will be negotiated and submitted to the Commissioner for approval in the future. The UHA does not prohibit renaissance schools from using existing school facilities for temporary space as part of a contingency plan, especially because existing school facilities provide for the most logical and practical choice.”

In other words, the temporary use of district facilities is legal and compliant with the Urban Hope Act. Mastery will temporarily use space in Pyne Poynt Family School which is half-empty, as well as the old Washington School. Uncommon Schools will use the former Parkside Elementary School for their September kindergarten class. Both non-profits will comply with the DOE’s June 2 deadline for submitting construction schedules, agreements to purchase land, and financing plans.

SOS’s second objection pertains to the letter that Camden Public Schools sent to parents informing them that Mastery is “another great option for Camden families.” SOS says this amounts to direct promotion for Mastery. The letter continues, “[b]ut you do not have to enroll your child at Mastery in order for him or her to attend a great public school…We are confident that whether you should choose to access this new option or remain in your traditional school, you will begin to see improvements next Fall.”

Finally, SOS-NJ claims that CPS must have allowed Mastery to have access to confidential student information because representatives visited families. In fact, it is Mastery’s practice to offer information on enrollment to prospective families by canvassing neighborhoods.

What’s really behind SOS-NJ’s baseless objections to expanding school choice for Camden students?  Does SOS-NJ really believe that Camden students should eschew more promising educational opportunities and continue attending Pyne Poynt Family School where 90 percent of 6th graders fail basic skills tests in math and language arts?

Who knows? It doesn’t matter because SOS-NJ’s “objections” have nothing to do with education and everything to do with politics. Ironically, this anti-choice organization defines its mission as ensuring that “our children’s education is not compromised to political or ideological objectives,” but that’s exactly what its letter espouses. Ideology — in this case, defense of the traditional school institution despite decades of failure — trumps all. Even children.

Notably, SOS cc’ed its letter to Commissioner Hespe to David Sciarra, Executive Director of Education Law Center (ELC), the organization that made its bones fighting for educational equity for poor urban schoolchildren. In a final bit of irony, ELC now appears to be a comrade in arms with SOS as they fight together against educational equity for poor urban schoolchildren.

We’ll leave the last word to Camden’s Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, who had this to say about the complaint: “our students and families deserve excellent schools, and they deserve them as soon as possible. We are not sure why a small group of critics is against this progress.”

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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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