Last night, scores of parents and community members came to a Montclair Town Forum to hear about how the legislative push in New Jersey to expand charter schools and pass the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) could affect our area.
Billed as an “Informational Panel” and “Community Dialogue,” the forum included three panelists who spoke on related subjects before it was opened to questions from the audience. Mary Beth Rosenthal, an organizer of the event, introduced the panelists and reiterated that the purpose of the evening was not to discuss the benefits or detriments of charter schools: “We [are not here] to argue about details, but to talk about the big picture.”
Julia Sass Rubin, from Save our Schools NJ, spoke first. Her focus was on the efforts to reform charter school laws, specifically in reference to Bill S2243, co-sponsored by Senator Nia Gill, who was in attendance at the forum. The bill would require voter approval prior to the establishment of a charter school. Currently, New Jersey law allows the state to authorize a charter school without community input.
Ms. Rubin also spoke about vouchers and the the effect that for-profit education, like the Camelot schools which will be serving 400 of Camden’s most at-risk students, could have on traditional public schools. The voucher system, or the upcoming Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), Rubin stated, is “devastating to the kids left behind” in the traditional schools.
Stan Karp, from the Education Law Center, presented next. Discussing New Jersey’s school funding formula, Mr. Karp explained that the 2008 School Funding Reform Act, which would provide Montclair with millions more in state aid, is not fully funded. This leaves school districts in a constant state of crisis, uncertain year-to-year as to how much aid the state will provide. Mr. Karp cited the decision of Montclair’s Board of Education to hold on to the $2.2 million additional state aid instead of re-instating health benefits for school aides as the type of response that results from that uncertainty.
Debra Jennings, from the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, Inc. and the national board of Parents for Public Schools shared last. She spoke about families being asked to withdraw their children from charter schools and private schools due to disabilities or behavioral issues. In reference to issues of fair access to education, Ms. Jennings pointed out that in some districts, 35-40% of the children are living in poverty, are English Language Learners, or are dealing with behavioral issues. These students are not the ones being “cherry-picked” for charter schools, she said.
Having over 600 school districts in New Jersey, Ms. Jennings said, wastes resources and energy, and adding charter schools to that number will waste even more. She emphasized the importance of parents getting involved, no matter what school their children attend. Ms. Jennings pointed out that Abbott schools originally had school management teams with a majority of parents, then it was changed to one parent representative, and now there are teams with only teachers and administrators. Parents need to take it upon themselves to stay involved, Ms. Jennings urged.
Following the panel presentations, audience member questions were read out loud and discussed. One question addressed privatization: “What role do wealthy forces like The Gates Foundation play?” This brought up the conflict between the need for funding and the need for community input. The panelists mentioned issues surrounding the Facebook grant given to Newark schools, and that items like merit pay for teachers and charter schools are part of an attempt to “break the dam” holding back the privatization of public policy.
Another audience question asked, “What is the argument for charter schools in New Jersey?” The panelists responded that one of the obstacles to a discussion about charter schools is that many people aren’t sure what they actually are. A problem with charter school initiatives is a lack of community input. Julia Sass Rubin cited a Quinnipiac University poll that found most New Jersey residents opposed expansion of charter schools. She also reiterated that charter schools are not uniform; they can be wonderful or terrible, just like traditional public schools. In fact, Rubin’s child currently attends a charter school.
One more question asked about whether county school systems, like those in Maryland, are more affordable. Stan Karp’s response was that 600 school districts are not efficient, but “they sort very well for class and race.” He said it is a social issue that needs to be dealt with before any consolidation can occur in the interest of affordability.
The flyers for the Keeping Public Schools Public town forum stated that the panel and follow-up dialogue were to focus on how the legislative push in New Jersey to expand charter schools and pass the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) could affect our area. Despite that, many parents in attendance were disappointed that more pointed information about the pros and cons concerning charter schools was not discussed.
Nadia Christiansen, the mother of a 5th grader at Hillside, came looking for information about why Montclair is against charter schools. While she is still making up her mind about whether or not she likes charter schools, she feels that the schools could be more rigorous. She wondered if charter schools could raise expectations so that all schools could improve.
Abraham Dickerson, whose daughter is starting at Glenfield, expected to hear more concrete positives and negatives about charter schools. He felt that both sides are too political, and that children and parents get stuck in the middle.
The forum, Keeping Public Schools Public, was sponsored by several local community groups as well as the Montclair Public Schools, the Montclair Council of PTAs, and both the NJ NAACP State Conference and the Montclair NAACP. Additional sponsors include Council Member Renee Baskerville, M.D, BlueWaveNJ, and Congregation Bnai Keshet.