Recent lawsuit against Camden schools may really be about school vouchers

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

This past Monday, parents of three young Camden City Public Schools students filed a class action complaint with N.J. Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. The parents contend that enrollment in Camden’s bleak public school system constitutes a breach of their children’s constitutional right to a “thorough and efficient public education system.”


Are the parents’ children being denied their constitutional rights? Sure. Twenty-three of Camden’s 26 schools are on the State’s list of our worst schools (the bottom 5 percent). Based on SAT scores, less than 1 percent of Camden High School’s graduates are ready for college. One plaintiff has a twelve-year-old son, Keanu Vargas, who attends 7th grade at Pyne Point Family School. The most recent data from the N.J. DOE (2010-2011) shows that hardly any kids at Pyne Point pass the state standardized tests in language arts and math. Forty-two percent of the student body was suspended during the year.

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Not so hard to make an argument that Keanu doesn’t have access to a decent education system. By way of contrast, at Cherry Hill Public Schools, a mere seven miles away, just about all kids achieve proficiency on state tests.

But the transparency of the complaint ends there. In fact, the complaint is mired in various levels of political complexities that go back more than 30 years.

School voucher proponents backing lawsuit

At one level, the complaint seems aimed at resuscitating the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), a bill that would offer corporate-sponsored scholarships to poor children. The corporations, in exchange, would get tax credits. This legislation is also known as “the voucher bill,” and is currently moribund in the Assembly, despite fervent advocacy by the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, the Latino Alliance, and Excellent Education for Everyone, an advocacy group.

Coincidentally, those groups are the primary supporters for the complaint filed Monday. Also, the president of the Latino Leadership Alliance, Martin Perez, is husband and law partner of Patricia Bombelyn, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Last year, when OSA’s momentum in the Legislature approached its highest speed, some lawmakers were gulping Xanax, terrified that voting for OSA would be perceived as inviting the specter of “privatization of public schools.” Enter the Urban Hope Act, a piece of legislation that allowed up to four new charter schools to be built and operated in three terrible schools districts, including Camden.

Thus, the Urban Hope Act was an anxiety-relieving compromise, carefully circumscribed and even backed by N.J.’s primary teacher union, NJEA. It passed easily.

But just last week, the Camden City School Board denied all Urban Hope applications from groups eager to build and operate new schools in Camden. (See last week’s post for background.) So the Board’s abnegation of new charters reopens the door to OSA. After all, if the children in Camden need to go elsewhere to exercise their constitutional rights, where are they going to go? Cherry Hill and other Camden County districts are unlikely to absorb 12,000 new school kids. What other recourse is there for Keanu and at least some of his schoolmates? Hmm. Maybe OSA.

Abbott v. Burke

One more level. Remember, Camden is an Abbott district. The logic of Abbott is that poor kids need far more resources than wealthier kids in order to have access to an equitable education (true) and that equity can be achieved through money. The Abbott cases have been nobly litigated by an organization called the Education Law Center (ELC), which filed its first case with the State in 1981, charging that students attending N.J.’s poorest districts were deprived of their constitutional rights. The Court agreed and ordered compensatory funding in order to achieve “parity” with wealthy districts.

ELC, fundamentally invested in the Abbott remedy, is opposed to the Opportunity Scholarship Act and on Monday was tweeting derogatory comments about the complaint filed by the parents.

It’s déjà vu all over again. Just like in Abbott, we have attorneys representing poor students, charging that their clients are being deprived of their constitutional rights to a “thorough and efficient education.”

And here’s the irony: Keanu and his schoolmates are deprived because they’re stuck in an Abbott school district, in spite of the court-ordered compensatory funding of $22,000 per child per year. It’s the same argument used in the Abbott cases – kids in poor districts are deprived of educational opportunity – but this time the plaintiffs have given up on the remedy of money leading to Camden’s educational renaissance.

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.

Revised: to correct first name of the attorney of the Camden parents filing the lawsuit

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