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NJEA Cries Foul Over ‘Massive Corporate Takeover’ of Camden Schools

With move to drop retirement benefits for city’s laid-off teachers, union toughens stance on Urban Hope Act

Wendell Steinhauer
Wendell Steinhauer, president of the NJEA.

Gov. Chris Christie’s conditional veto of amendments to the Urban Hope Act set off the state’s largest teachers union yesterday, while also raising questions about how the law will now play out for Camden’s schools.

The veto was spurred by a specific provision that would have provided an early retirement package for Camden teachers whose jobs may be in the crosshairs as the law clears the way for a vast expansion of charter schools in the city.

In his veto message, Christie praised other amendments that would extend the law for another year and give more flexibility to charter networks that already have beachheads in the city.

But the conditional veto raises the prospect that the entire bill could die if the Legislature doesn’t go along with the changes.

Yesterday, one of the law’s prime sponsors said he would ask Democratic leadership to move the bill ahead, saying it’s important to pass it even without the early retirement package. But he was making no promises that his fellow lawmakers would cooperate.

“It is important enough to move ahead with the (conditional veto), but ultimately it is not up to just the sponsors,” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Camden), the bill’s chief sponsor in the Assembly.

Opponents were taking no chances. The New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, jumped on the announcement and issued a scathing critique of the bill as an expansion of the “privatization” of the district.

The NJEA supported the original law, passed in 2012, but said the amended bill would allow charter-school expansion that ran counter to the original intent of the legislation.

The NJEA had been subdued in its opposition, with the early retirement piece seen as critical benefit in a district where there were more than 200 teacher layoffs this spring.

Yesterday, though, NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer said the bill – with or without the retirement package – is an outright attack on the district.

“The original legislation enacted in 2012 was never intended to give private operators a blank check to take over buildings, skim off higher-achieving students and drain the resources of the Camden schools in the process,” he said. “Passage of this legislation expands the existing law, enabling the massive corporate takeover of the Camden Public Schools.”

Singleton said he recognized the NJEA’s opposition, and he decried Christie’s veto of the early retirement package. “I am extremely disappointed it is not in the bill – it is a matter of respect for those who have served the city and the students,” he said.

But as an original sponsor of the Urban Hope Act, Singleton also said the extension of the law remains his priority. “I respect the NJEA on this matter, but we need a whatever-means-necessary strategy in serving our students in the neediest districts,” he said.

The NJEA’s statement specifically targeted the two latest charter networks to win approval to open schools in the district -- the Mastery Schools network out of Philadelphia and the Uncommon Schools organization, which is best known in New Jersey for its North Star schools network in Newark.

“Mastery and Uncommon charter schools have already been cherry-picking Camden students, and now they are seeking legislation to take over public school buildings in order to increase their expansion,” said Steinhauer in the statement.

The organizations have long-contested any claims that they are being selective in enrolling Camden students. Provisions of the law require that the networks to accept all students within certain neighborhoods or “catchment areas.”

“We are neither a national charter school company nor a corporate takeover company,” said Barbara Martinez, spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools. “We are a nonprofit organization. Far from cherry-picking students, we have been knocking on doors, presenting at community events and educating the community about our school.”

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