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Opinion: The Not So Hidden Agenda to Stall Expansion of Public Charter Schools in NJ

Follow the money behind two-pronged legal and academic attack. Realize the endgame is a moratorium on charters

laura waters
Laura Waters

When those opposed to education reform go after public charter schools, they typically adhere to the prototype of a direct attack, like this editorial by Diane Ravitch who charges that these independent schools are segregated, nonunion, and run by craven profiteers. However, this past May a different kind of attack was leveled in New Jersey. Instead of the traditional unbridled attacks, a new report and a new lawsuit, released simultaneously, hide their twinned agenda like a set of Matryoshka nesting dolls by encasing their anti-charter argument within fiscally or politically impossible positions until the final prize is revealed.

The report, written by Paul Tractenberg and Ryan Coughlan, was published in May by the Center for Diversity and Equality in Education (CDEE). The lawsuit was filed in May by the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse & Inclusive Schools, Inc. (NJCDIS). Let’s unscrew our set of increasingly small Russian dolls and look at the overlap of recommendations in both the report and the lawsuit. Then we’ll follow the money and expose the endgame.

Report/lawsuit proposals dead in the water

Proposal 1: Gov. Phil Murphy and the state Legislature must support the construction of more affordable housing units.

Fact: Great idea! However, early in May — before the publication of the report and the filing of the lawsuit — Gov. Murphy announced that he would divert nearly $78 million from the affordable housing fund to balance the budget. No cash, no construction. (The final budget put aside $15 million to construct affordable homes.)

Proposal 2: Gov. Murphy and the state Legislature should push district consolidation.

Fact: That’s a fine idea that will never happen because, like the lightbulb, a district must want to consolidate. (By the way, former Gov. Jon Corzine tried this and failed.) Tractenberg/Coughlan’s hoary archetype is a 50-year-old merger of two districts in Morris County. A more timely example: Avalon Boro Public School has 43 students in grades K-6 with an annual cost per pupil of $38,172, presumably the lowest hanging fruit on the consolidation tree. Yet Avalon Board of Education president Lynn Schwartz said in response to a question about merging, “I can’t see any incentive whatsoever.”

Proposal 3: New Jersey should expand its system of countywide magnet schools and the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program.

Fact: New Jersey’s county magnet schools are more segregated than any other public schools in the state. Bergen Academies, for example, is 93 percent white and Asian, 5 percent low-income, 1 percent special education, and 0 percent English-language learners. In Newark there are 789 white students and 152 of them attend the magnet called Science Park. The state’s Interdistrict program, while wildly popular, is dependent on nonexistent state funding and exists in suspended animation.

Proposal 4: New Jersey should start a voluntary transfer program where poor kids of color would be bused to white suburban districts that would earn “financial incentives” as compensation for their noblesse oblige.

Fact: A growing number of black education leaders don’t view integration as a panacea to school inequities. Example: Charter school leader Sharif El-Mekki describes diversification efforts like those itemized in the lawsuit/report as “fairy tale integration” that “simply force the most marginalized communities in public education to sacrifice further.” Elsewhere he wonders if “the push for integration as the sole fix for the lack of safety and achievement in our neighborhood schools will have a detrimental effect on the psyche of Black children.” He adds, “Any assault on the idea of Black excellence in a predominately Black space is detrimental and unacceptable.”

The point of this legal/academic exercise

The lawyers and researchers know— they must — that the bulk of their recommendations are unfeasible. However, there is a single shared proposal that carries neither impediment and would effectively shutter charter school expansion.

From the report: “75.4% of charter students are in highly disproportional schools where more than half of the students would need to be exchanged with students from different racial backgrounds to match the demographic composition of the total public-school population in New Jersey. These data add to existing research that demonstrates charter schools in New Jersey are currently part of the state’s segregation crisis.” Therefore, the Legislature must “modify the charter school law to encourage or require more multi-district charter schools with a specific mandate to enhance diversity.”

From the lawsuit: “The Commissioner has permitted most charter schools to locate themselves in individual intensely segregated urban districts notwithstanding the authority in the statute and regulations for multi-district charter schools, which can and should be implemented to advance student diversity, rather than accept student segregation,” and this is a violation of the 1995 N.J. Charter School Act.

In other words, the report recommends and the lawsuit demands that the N.J. Commissioner of Education, the sole authorizer of charter schools, only accept applicants who “advance student diversity.”

Now, it’s true that New Jersey charter schools disproportionately enroll students of color and low-income students. That’s because white/Asian wealthier families live in districts where parents are happy with traditional options. So, how would this work? I suppose a prospective charter school in, say, Newark, would include in its catchment area a nearby district like Millburn, where high school students are 89 percent white or Asian, 2 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 98 percent of students perform above college-readiness benchmarks on the SAT.

Take a minute to think about how many Millburn families would bus their children to Newark.

Pencils down!

New Jersey families buy their way into high-performing school districts where mortgage payments are a proxy for tuition. Charter schools cluster in low-income urban centers that are disproportionately minority because families demand public options other than their traditional schools. If the lawsuit is decided in favor of the plaintiffs and if legislators accede to the report’s recommendations, the effect would be a moratorium on future charter school authorizations.

And when you look at who’s funding both the report and the lawsuit it's easy to see that a moratorium on charters is actually what they want.

Follow the money

CDEE, which issued the report, is a nonprofit established by Prof. Tractenberg, the founder of Education Law Center (ELC) who was the leading attorney for New Jersey’s famous school funding lawsuits known as the Abbott cases. I admire his scholarship and his intense focus on disenfranchised schoolchildren. I share many of his sentiments regarding the state’s egregious record of depriving low-income and minority children access to high-quality schools. But I think he’s hanging around with a bad crowd.

CDEE’s “fiscal sponsor” is the anti-charter/accountability organization called Save Our Schools-NJ. SOS-NJ was founded by Rutgers professor Julia Sass Rubin. With her partner Mark Weber, a Rutgers Ph.D. student under the tutelage of Rutgers professor Bruce Baker, Rubin issues reports funded by the anti-charter Daniel Tanner Foundation and the NEA-funded National Education Policy Center that strive to undermine the success of students at schools run by top-notch operators like KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon.

Prof. Tractenberg’s baby, ELC, gets a quarter of its funding (most recent data: $525,000 out of a $1.9 million budget) from the state teachers union NJEA, which is lobbying the Legislature to enact a moratorium on all charter school expansion and authorization. His co-author is Ryan Coughlan, who last year co-authored a methodologically flawed report with Gary Orfield called “New Jersey’s Segregated Schools Trends and Paths Forward” that denigrates charter schools; this new report is a replicate of the earlier one.

The endgame

The board of NJCDIS, which sponsored the lawsuit, includes Tractenberg; ELC executive director David Sciarra (who often defames charter schools); Frank Argote‐Freyre of the Latino Action Network, who led the failed fight against the expansion of Red Bank Charter School; and NAACP’s Richard Smith who helped pass a resolution demanding a moratorium on all charter schools to the dismay of advocates like Derrell Bradford who called out the NAACP’s “duplicitous engagement of black folks on the issue of charter schools” as “the worst kind of betrayal.”

That’s the endgame, of course, nicely aligned with the agendas of NJEA, Save Our Schools-NJ, Education Law Center, and the anti-choice Rutgers contingent. Under a thin veneer of (white) moral indignation at the (truly) dismal lack of integration borne from housing patterns, the report and the lawsuit intend to block further charter expansion in New Jersey. Such an embargo might help NJEA hold onto members, SOS-NJ squash charter growth, ELC protect its urban turf, and Rutgers professors publish not perish, but the victims of their charade are, ironically or not, the very students they pretend to care for.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Left Behind, New York School Talk, Education Post, and other publications. She was a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 12 years and served nine years as president.

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