Charter Anxiety: A Suburban Malady?

As backlash grows in the suburbs, the reaction in the cities is more complicated

A Senate hearing yesterday on charter schools brought out many of the same familiar faces, led by a growing cadre of parents from suburban communities like Princeton, Highland Park, East Brunswick, and a new one to the list, Cherry Hill.

While more than half of all of New Jersey’s charter schools operate in its poorest cities, there was nobody from places like Paterson, Trenton, and Camden. They weren’t entirely without representation, to be sure, as various advocates stepped up to speak, but New Jersey’s fierce debate over charter schools has had a distinctly suburban feel of late.

That raises the question: where are the cities in what some have called the growing backlash against charters in New Jersey? What are the reactions there?

Interviews with an array of players and observers on hand yesterday found there is not one answer to those questions, just as there is not one set of circumstance for any city, let alone every school.

For some, charters in their 15 years in New Jersey have settled into a complementary role in places like Newark and Jersey City, where few argue the traditional schools could use some help.

Thomas Dunn Jr., a lobbyist for the state’s superintendents association, recalled that when he was superintendent in Elizabeth he raised objections to a charter school application there.

“But clearly when you are a high-needs district and the needs of a number of students are not being fully met, it may be counterproductive to oppose additional opportunities for them,” he said.

Yet others said the same tensions underlie the coexistence of charters and public schools in the cities. They’re just not voiced with slogans at Senate hearings or suburban rallies. Recent turmoil in Newark over charters and districts schools sharing space brought hundreds out to voice opinions, if not outrage.

“It’s not that we don’t hear the concerns,” said Sharon Krengel, policy and outreach coordinator for the Education Law Center in Newark. “With more charter schools in places like Newark, we actually hear more.”

Suburban Backlash

Still, the recent debate over charter schools in the state has been largely framed as suburban backlash, and for good reason.

Vocal opposition to charter schools — or at least the law that authorizes them — has been almost entirely from suburban districts, including in legal appeals and formal letters of objection filed with the state Department of Education as part of the charter application process.

For example, before the Christie administration’s recent approval of Regis Academy Charter School in Cherry Hill, the Camden County township’s school board and mayor wrote letters of objection to the state, as did school officials in neighboring Voorhees, which would also be served.

The objections are many, but the common theme in these districts is both philosophical and financial. For one, they contend that their district schools do well, and there is no need for the alternative that a charter school offers. For another, there is the cost. In Cherry Hill, for instance, it would cost the district $1.9 million a year to fund the charter, officials said, or roughly the cost of 30 teachers.

Another half-dozen Cherry Hill residents wrote in their objections as well, and now that the school has been approved, Cherry Hill school officials say they will file a formal appeal.

But next door in Camden, there was a two-page letter from the district about the application of a new charter school there, including questions as to if it would offer preschool. And in Trenton and Jersey City, where new charter schools were also announced, there was no local input at all.

Newark as a district rarely, if ever, formally contests a charter school in its midst, despite the reality that close to one in seven Newark schoolchildren now attend charters. The fact that Newark is a state-controlled district — as are Jersey City and Paterson — may play a role in that. And the ongoing tensions over that state control likely fueled some of the community turmoil over charters earlier this year.

Clearly, the argument that urban schools don’t need the alternative carries less weight. And in some of these cities, especially Newark and Jersey City, charter schools have proven to be among highest-achieving schools overall.

State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), who sits on the Senate education committee that held the hearing yesterday, said she rarely hears complaints from her constituents in Trenton about the growth of charters there, even as some of the charters have been forced to close.

“I don’t think they have a problem with it so much,” she said. “They can’t argue about the quality of their schools. Look at the test scores, and they say well, if there is an alternative and another way to help our students, let’s buy it.”

Grassroots Organizations

But there are other factors at play, too, she and others said. Clearly, the opposition is better organized in the suburbs, and much of that organizing comes out of the Save Our Schools NJ, a group with Central Jersey roots that has been critical of the state’s charter school law as giving no voice to the communities that host the schools. SOS NJ has left few public forums about charter schools unattended, and often has members sitting on the panels themselves.

“We have members in the cities,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers professor who is one of the more public faces of a group that has no official leaders. “We’re not monolithic at all. We have members in every city, and not just one or two.”

But she acknowledged that the movement appears strongest in suburban communities, where parents may have more time and resources to come out for hearings or rallies like those held this summer.

“Unfortunately, fewer in the cities can do this,” she said.

But Rubin and others said the incentives are different as well. The financial pressures on suburban districts have in some ways been more acute of late than in urban districts.

When a charter school moves in, it can cost hundreds of thousands – if not millions — of dollars that must come largely from local taxpayers. For typically large urban districts, that funding can be more easily be absorbed and is often largely borne by the state.

And smaller suburban districts with higher-performing schools that are a source of pride — not to mention real estate value — have a sense there is more to lose if a charter school moves in and draws significant funds from the district schools, some said.

“It’s the schools that attract these parents,” Turner said after the hearing. “But then when you get there, you see your property taxes rise and your kids start to get shortchanged in class size and extra-curricular activities cut back, then they get angry.”

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