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Opinion: Urban Hope and the Do-Nothing Schools Development Authority

The Urban Hope Act gives George Norcross just what he wants, a way to clean up Camden.

Urban Hope was one of 95 bills approved by the state Senate on its last day of the 214th session. Typical. The New Jersey legislature has never been accused of being a deliberative body, or a particularly transparent one. The legislative tsunami of a session-ending day is the perfect time to sneak a bill through that might not otherwise withstand sustained scrutiny.

Urban Hope was introduced on the Thursday before Christmas week, just as everyone prepared for the dead week between Christmas and New Year. Approved by committees in both houses on the session's penultimate day, it was ready for final enactment on January 9. Enacted it was.

This abbreviated calendar for considering the merits of Urban Hope gave no practical time for a careful review of what was promoted as a dramatic breakthrough in urban education. In the rush, opponents mistakenly figured that it was designed to benefit for-profit corporations, just one more step in the Christie drive to privatize public education.

The ostensible purpose of Urban Hope is to give students in failing school districts better educational opportunities. Its preamble speaks to the persistent failure of some city districts to improve educational performance despite generous funding over many years. "Enough already!" say its proponents. Urban Hope gives only Newark, Trenton, and Camden the chance to partner with nonprofits -- and only nonprofits -- to improve teaching and learning in as many as four "renaissance schools" in each district.

There is no reason to enact new laws if one's goal is to attract experienced charter management organizations (CMOs) to open or takeover schools in poor Jersey cities. The Christie-Cerf team is actively recruiting CMOs like Mastery in Philadelphia to come across the river. Mastery is scheduled to open a new Camden charter in September. KIPP and Uncommon Schools, two prominent CMOs, are already opening schools in Newark (mostly in under-utilized district buildings).

No, Urban Hope is a school construction program. Instructional reform is secondary. In fact, only projects that start with the construction of a new school are eligible. Renovations or additions to existing schools are not welcome. Another condition is that no state or public bond dollars are to be used in building the new schools. Nonprofit corporations with proven experience in urban education are expected to raise or borrow the necessary funds. They will be excused from the state's torturous bidding laws, but must pay union-scale wages.

To understand how and why a bill of such magnitude could be enacted without careful review, think Cooper Hospital.

The chair of the Cooper board is George Norcross, an influential citizen of South Jersey who is determined to make Cooper a world-class medical facility. As the untitled leader of South Jersey Democrats, Norcross worked a stealth deal with the Corzine administration to separate Cooper from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in 2009 to create the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.

But Cooper's future is compromised by its Camden location, one of the poorest, most violent cities in the nation. Chairman Norcross is dedicated to cleaning up the hospital's environs, including Camden's failed public schools. He has targeted nearby Lanning Square School for replacement and reform. Urban Hope provides the means.

If the idea is to build new schools in Camden, then why not push the NJ School Development Authority to make them high priorities? After all, SDA's primary business is to build, renovate, or repair school buildings in the 31 Abbott districts. It has already built 63 new schools and completed major renovations/additions to another 68 at a cost of almost $6 billion. It has about $2 billion of bonding capacity available, so money's not the problem.

The problem is that the SDA has stopped working. It burns through more than $40 milion a year to employ 260 people who produce committees and reports but damned few schools. Even "emergent" projects are ignored -- not one application among hundreds for closing leaks or replacing boilers was approved during all of 2011. According to its most recent report, it is overseeing a total of four inherited construction projects and eight repair projects of modest scale. SDA acknowledges completing only 27 emergency projects over two years, with as many as 300 emergent applications in its clogged pipeline.

SDA uses bond funds for its operating budget, which means that rent, salaries and benefits, cars, consultants and everything else will be paid for by our children and grandchildren. Moreover, SDA projects $250 million more for salaries and such over the next five years!

Back to Cooper Hospital. It has a resourceful and well-connected chair who is unwilling to suffer at the hands of the engorged and glacially paced bureaucracy at SDA. My guess is that George Norcross invented Urban Hope, worked it out with the governor and legislative leadership, and sprang it on the world in December to transform Cooper's shabby neighboring school with a gleaming new facility. Another guess is that some experienced educational nonprofit is standing by ready to pounce as soon as applications are available.

In the meantime, the SDA shuffles papers and, then, shuffles some more . . .

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