Egged on by Governor Chris Christie, the privatization movement has targeted Camden, Néw Jersey.

 

PARENT ADVOCATES CALL ON LEGISLATURE TO HALT UNPRECEDENTED EXPANSION OF UNACCOUNTABLE CHARTER CHAINS IN CAMDEN

 

 

NJ Senate President Stephen Sweeney is poised to pass S2264, legislation that amends the 2013 Urban Hope Act in order to accommodate illegally approved renaissance charter schools in Camden. Senator Sweeney is bringing this legislation to a full Senate vote on Monday, September 22, without first introducing it in committee. This legislation was already snuck through the Legislature once in late June.

“The handwriting is on the wall,” said Susan Cauldwell, Executive Director of Save Our Schools NJ Community Organizing.

“If the legislature allows this undemocratic transfer of Camden public education to private control, district schools will be forced to close, and the education of Camden schoolchildren and the oversight of hundreds of millions of our tax dollars will be in the hands of entities that are unaccountable to New Jersey families and taxpayers.”

“The people of New Jersey deserve more transparency and accountability from their elected officials, especially when our children’s futures are at stake,” Ms. Cauldwell added.

Last spring, Commissioner of Education David Hespe approved renaissance school proposals submitted by out-of-state charter chains, Mastery and Uncommon, knowing they did not comply with the current Urban Hope Act law.

Save Our Schools NJ objected to the illegal Mastery and Uncommon approvals in three letters to the Commissioner. In what appears to be an acknowledgment of the validity of these objections, a bill amending the Urban Hope Act to allow some of Mastery and Uncommon’s illegal activity, was quickly passed through the Legislature in late June. That bill was vetoed by the Governor.

In August, after Senator Sweeney indicated that he would support a reintroduction of this legislation, Save Our Schools NJ and the Education Law Center sent a letter to Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto calling on him to reject the new UHA legislation. The two organizations recently sent the same letter to all State Legislators (please see below).

“The Camden school district currently turns over $72 million, or 26% of its budget, to charters, because of the new KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon schools that have opened this year. That number will continue to grow,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “We urge Legislators to oppose any expansion of the Urban Hope Act. The purpose of the act was to encourage construction of new school buildings in Camden, not to privatize public education in the district.”

LETTER TO LEGISLATORS

Dear Senator,

We urge you to vote no on Senate Bill 2264, scheduled for a full Senate vote on Monday, September 22!

This legislation extends by one year the Urban Hope program, which allows up to four private, non-profit organizations to open and operate multiple schools in Camden. This legislation also allows these organizations to open schools in temporary facilities, expanding the Urban Hope Act far beyond its intended scope of authorizing only “newly constructed” renaissance school projects.

We strongly oppose this bill because it expedites and further facilitates an unprecedented and unaccountable transfer of public education in Camden from public to private control, under the Urban Hope Act.

Governor Chris Christie’s administration has approved, behind closed doors, three renaissance projects for out-of-state charter chains over the last year. These approvals have set in motion dramatic changes that will result in the hyper-segregation of Camden students; the closing of many of Camden’s district and “homegrown” charter schools; and a near complete absence of accountability for hundreds of millions of New Jersey tax dollars.

1) Transfer of Public Education to Out-Of-State Private Charter Chains

In early July, the Commissioner of Education approved applications for renaissance schools from the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains. Mastery is based in Philadelphia, and Uncommon in New York. The Commissioner authorized these chains to open 11 schools serving 6,194 Camden students. In 2013, the former Commissioner authorized the KIPP charter chain, also based in New York, to open 5 schools serving 2,300 students.

Thus, under the Urban Hope Act, the Christie Administration has given the green light to three charter chains – KIPP, Master and Uncommon – to open 16 schools serving 9,214 Camden students over the next several years. This constitutes 62% of the approximately 15,000 students that attended Camden’s 26 district-operated neighborhood and magnet schools and 13 “locally-grown” charter schools during the 2013-14 academic year.

2) Hyper-Segregation of the Camden Student Population

These charter chains have a poor track record of serving very low-income students, English language learners, students with disabilities, and students at-risk of failure and with other special needs. As a result, the district would be left to educate, with a severely diminished budget, the most academically challenged students, whom the charters chains are either unwilling or unable to serve.

3) Closing of Camden’s District and Charter Schools

As Mastery, KIPP and Uncommon open schools and increase enrollment, the State-operated district will close many, if not most, of the 26 schools currently in operation. The State in recent months closed two charter schools. It is likely that more of these “homegrown” charters also will be closed.

4) Absence of Fiscal and Educational Accountability

The system created by the Urban Hope Act is shockingly lacking in accountability. It relegates the State-operated Camden district solely to the task of transferring enormous amounts of school funding to Mastery, KIPP and Uncommon Schools. In fact, the district’s 2014-15 budget already shows a nearly 30% projected increase in payments to charter schools, from $55.5 million to $72 million, as a result of the opening of the first KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon schools. This amount equals approximately 26% of the Camden district’s FY15 budget and will only increase in the coming years.

Aside from a cursory review by the Commissioner of Education every two years, the renaissance chains also are exempt from the State accountability and oversight requirements applicable to district and charter schools. Instead, responsibility for the education of Camden’s children and the effective and efficient use of hundreds of millions in New Jersey tax dollars would shift to the boards of trustees of the private charter chains. The Urban Hope legislation does not indicate how these organizations would be held accountable for providing a “thorough and efficient” education not just for some, but for the majority of Camden’s schoolchildren.

The Urban Hope Act has been used in Camden to serve a purpose far beyond its intent of creating four newly constructed school projects. Rather, it has been used to remake public education, shifting governance and control over the city’s schools to private organizations based outside New Jersey. This has occurred with almost no information about the specifics of the State’s plans, no meaningful opportunity for parent and community input, and no assurance of accountability going forward.

For these reasons, we oppose any further expansion or extension of the Urban Hope Act. We also urge the Joint Committee on the Public Schools to conduct investigative hearings into the Commissioners’ decisions allowing the Mastery, Uncommon and KIPP chains to, in effect, take over public education in Camden and to determine if any steps can now be taken to address the impact of these decisions on students and schools in the State-operated district.

Sincerely,

David Sciarra
Executive Director
Education Law Center

Susan Cauldwell
Executive Director
Save Our Schools
NJ Community Organizing