Families & the Community Opinion

Charter School Networks and Shady Political Dealings: The Camden, N. J. Story

By Anthony Cody — July 05, 2014 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Guest post by Julia Sass Rubin.

[Editor’s note: A clarification has been added at the end of this post.]

Last week, while many of us were busy making plans for the summer, something much more sinister was happening in the halls of the State Capital in Trenton, N. J..

At 11 p.m., on Tuesday, June 24th, legislation was discussed and voted on by the New Jersey Senate and Assembly Budget Committees, without all the legislators understanding what they were approving. “We didn’t have the bills in advance,” complained one of the Senators, “I didn’t know what the hell the bills were.” This legislation was then quickly pushed through the full New Jersey Senate and Assembly.

The legislation revised a 2012 law known as Urban Hope in order to enable two charter chains - Mastery and Uncommon Schools - to claim a large share of Camden’s public education dollars. The charters’ efforts had been imperiled by the grassroots group Save Our Schools NJ, which had sent a series of letters in May to New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe. The letters detailed how the two charter chains and the Camden state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard were violating various aspects of the Urban Hope law in their efforts to open new renaissance charter schools in Camden next fall. The violations included using temporary facilities instead of building new schools; failing to provide key information required by the application; and not giving Camden residents the opportunity to review and comment on their applications.

Rather than stopping their illegal activities in response to the letters, the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains and the Camden Superintendent turned to their friends in the legislature to “fix” the problem by amending the Urban Hope legislation so that what had been illegal could now be legal. [Editor’s Note: See clarification at the end of this post.]

Mastery and Uncommon also retroactively provided some of the information that had been missing from their renaissance charter applications, although they still did not make this information available to Camden residents, as required by the Urban Hope law. Instead, the information could only be obtained through an Open Public Records (OPRA) request.

The public education advocacy group Education Law Center filed such a request and discovered that the Mastery charter network planned to create 6 renaissance charter schools in Camden, which could enroll up to 4,654 students. The Uncommon Schools charter network planned to create an additional four renaissance charter schools, which could enroll up to 2,260 students. A third renaissance charter, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, had been previously approved to build 4 schools that could enroll up to 2,800 students. This could bring the total enrollment in KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon renaissance charter schools to almost 10,000 students by 2019. At that level, the three renaissance charter schools would represent a significant majority of the 14,000 students currently enrolled in Camden’s public and traditional charter schools.

As part of last week’s revisions to the Urban Hope Law, legislators also added an extra year to the program’s duration, so that a fourth renaissance charter chain - the maximum allowed by the program - could be rushed through the application process and opened by the fall of 2015. In total, the four renaissance charter school chains could result in the complete destruction of Camden’s public schools.

The negative fiscal impact of the renaissance charter program is already being felt on the Camden District’s public schools. Hundreds of teachers and staff members were fired this spring because of projected budget shortfalls caused by payments the district has to make to renaissance and regular charter schools. Over the next few years, Camden parents are likely to see many more public school teachers laid off and extensive school reorganizations and closings as the privately-managed renaissance charters open more and more schools, aggressively competing for the public school dollars.

Camden parents already lament the constant harassment by those charter chains, whose representatives approach them at every venue, come to their homes, and even try to recruit their children on school playgrounds. One Camden father recounted to me that he had repeatedly told the paid renaissance charter recruiters who came to his house that he did not want to send his child to their charter school, only to have them return the next morning and resume their recruitment efforts.

The charter chains also send marketing emails and letters to parents’ homes. Sometimes, this has been done with the assistance and endorsement of the state-appointed Camden District Superintendent, who has mailed the charter chains’ recruitment materials to parents along with District correspondence. But parents also report receiving personally-addressed mail sent directly by the charter chains. A Camden mother told me that she called the Mastery charter chain’s offices in Philadelphia after receiving such a personally-addressed recruitment letter from them and spoke with a woman who asked for her name and the names of her children and then found their address on a list in front of her. Based on such experiences, Camden parents are convinced that the Camden School District’s state-appointed superintendent is giving their children’s personal information to the charter chains in order to facilitate the chains’ enrollment growth.

Rouhanifard, the Camden superintendent, is undeniably allied with the charter chains. He was instrumental in recruiting Mastery and Uncommon to apply for renaissance charter status and he preliminarily approved those chains to open schools in Camden in September.

Camden parents understand that the superintendent works for the governor rather than for them. They also know that they cannot expect their political representatives to protect their public schools. The District has no elected Board of Education and even the appointed Board that served prior to the 2013 state takeover of the District has been replaced by individuals willing to rubber stamp the Christie Administration’s actions. Camden’s political establishment, at both the local and state levels, is closely aligned with the South Jersey political machine of George Norcross, who was the primary force behind the creation of the Urban Hope program and whose name graces one of the renaissance charter schools. And Norcross is a close ally of the Governor.

In contrast to the corporate education reformers’ mantra of greater parental choice, many Camden parents feel that they have no real choices. Not only are they barraged by the aggressive and relentless recruitment efforts of the charter chains, they also are concerned about the impact on their children of having to be transferred multiple times as their local public schools are sequentially closed due to the expansion of renaissance charters.

Many parents - and Camden public school administrators - also believe that a complete charter takeover of the district is inevitable and beyond their control. There is even a publicly-available blueprint that details the Christie Administration’s intentions to convert Camden into a New Orleans style all-charter district that includes a few remaining public schools to educate the children too challenging for the charter chains to take on - children with significant special needs; children who are not English proficient; and children whose families are too economically or emotionally distressed to meet the charter networks’ parental-involvement requirements. To minimize the uncertainty that they see ahead for the district and for their families, some parents have decided to move their children to a charter school now to avoid subjecting them to multiple possible future transfers.

But there are Camden parents who are mobilizing against the destruction of their public schools. They reject the Christie Administration’s mantra that their public schools are all failures because their personal experiences show that to be a lie. And they do not want to give up on public schools that accept every child rather than weeding out those who do not score well on standardized tests or who are more challenging to educate.

These parents express shock at the Mastery charter chain’s reported practice of having children carry a “demerit card” on a lanyard around their necks, with demerits issued for such minor offenses as students having their shirts untucked or chewing gum, and with eight demerits leading to a detention.

They do not want their children to attend a charter school that touts its 100 percent graduation rate while only half of the children who start in 5th grade manage to make it to 12th grade (and only 40 percent of the students who are Black and male), as is the case for the Uncommon Schools charter chain.

Parents also are increasingly aware of what has happened in Detroit and New Orleans and even parts of Washington D.C.: Once the local public schools are gone, there is no way to get them back. Consequently, the children who do not conform to the “no excuses” charter models end up with no place to turn.

Two and a half years ago, when the Urban Hope legislation that created the renaissance charter program was first introduced and rushed through the New Jersey Legislature, in the waning hours of a legislative session, it was not sold as a way of privatizing Camden’s public schools. Instead, Senator Donald Norcross, the bill’s primary Senate sponsor and George Norcross’s brother, argued that the legislation was urgently needed because Governor Christie had frozen the work of the State’s Schools Development Authority, which had been tasked with building and renovating schools in 31 of New Jersey’s highest-poverty school districts. That is the reason that the legislation authorized renaissance charter schools to be funded at 95 percent of their home school district’s average per pupil expenditure levels vs. 90 percent for regular charters - to give the renaissance charters the financial resources to build those critically needed new schools.

However, revisions to the law that were snuck through the New Jersey legislature last week gave the renaissance charters the option of renovating existing facilities rather than having to build new schools, upending the entire premise for the renaissance charter program. Now, the renaissance charters will receive more of the taxpayers’ dollars for doing exactly what most existing charter schools already do - renovating an existing facility.

For all the efforts by the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains to characterize their work as being driven by what is best for the children, the Camden story suggests that their true motivation is a relentless push for greater market share and a willingness to abuse power, and even to break the law, in order to accomplish that objective.

Clarification: This post characterizes some of the Renaissance schools’ activities as “illegal” with respect to the original 2012 Urban Hope law. However, neither the charter-management organizations in question nor the Camden school district has in any way been found to be out of compliance with the law or its supporting regulations. The groups’ applications were approved by the state on Monday, July 7.

Julia Sass Rubin is an associate professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University and a visiting associate professor of public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. She is researching the community response to public education privatization efforts in Camden and Newark. Dr. Rubin also is one of the founding members of the grassroots, pro-public education group Save Our Schools NJ.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.