Community v. Community: the inevitable result of “voting with your feet”

This is cross-posted from the Local Knowledge Blog which you can find on Facebook as well
This is heartbreaking and infuriating. Promoted by Rosi.

Last night’s Camden school board meeting was ugly. It was painful to watch. And it was particularly painful because it featured Camden parent against Camden parent and a Cramer Hill community sharply divided against itself. The battle lines were clear: these parents and community members were divided based on which schools they attended. This is the design of a “competitive” school district — it, by necessity, sets parent against parent because school choice does not happen in a vacuum. The opening of schools in Camden will require the closing of other schools. I saw last night how ugly that process can get. The process of closing schools is a political one, it occurs on an uneven playing field, and it inevitably pits parents against one another. That is by design – when we talk of a “portfolio” of schools and of parents “voting with their feet” this is the result – ugly school board meetings where good schools are at risk of closure because irresponsible state and local decisions have been made to open too many schools. And while Charter Management Organizations fight for their schools, the Camden School District gives away theirs (even the highest performing ones, like Sharp).

Let me back up, because there hasn’t been much written about the proposed closure of Harry Sharp Elementary School in Camden. From what I understand, the genesis of the proposal started with Sharp Principal Evelyn Ruiz. While Principal Ruiz did not attend the meeting, her staff read a statement that indicated that with falling enrollment, they could offer more extracurriculars if the school merged with Davis Family School (I can only suspect that Ruiz, who argued vehemently against opening new schools in the district, can see the writing on the wall and is trying to preemptively protect her school community by proposing a merger before the school is closed). With the district struggling to find a location for Camden High students during its renovations (and the proposal to move children from Forest Hill and use that school as the high school site being strongly opposed), the district saw an opportunity. According to one parent, the district is considering merging Sharp and Davis Elementary School, moving a school from the Boys and Girls Club (the parent said KIPP — but there is no KIPP at a Boys and Girls club that I’m aware of) and the HS in the club.

That’s where things went off the rails. The meeting featured approximately 250 people. They were sharply divided. In the front of the room sat Parents for Great Camden Schools and a large number of Urban Promise families, board members and educators. In the middle and back of the room were a rowdy group of Communities United community members (largely activists such as Vida Neil, Mo’Neke Ragsdale and others) along with a large number of Sharp parents and children. To my count, the crowd was split close to 50-50.

Urban Promise board members and parents, along with Parents for Great Camden Schools, got to the meeting early. For nearly the first 90 minutes of public comment they testified that their schools had been good, and, most importantly, that if Sharp were to be moved their school should get the building. Joseph Conway, the co-founder of the Camden Promise Charter School, insisted that his organization had been a good neighbor in Cramer Hill for 20 years and had fought against Cherokee development that was going to use eminent domain to displace thousand of families for a golf course. But, if Sharp were to move, that the building shouldn’t be vacant. Then members of his board, and parents from his schools, argued that Camden Promise should receive the Sharp building.

As my wife put it, it was rather like arguing over what would happen to grandmother’s jewels when she died, except grandmother was in the room.

Other parents from Parents for Great Camden Schools reprimanded Sharp parents — accusing Sharp parents of choosing education for convenience and due to distance, rather than choosing the best school for their child. Never mind that Sharp has some of the best performance outcomes in the district. The Parent for Great Camden Schools testified that “what I am hearing is that I shouldn’t have a choice” — as if the issue at hand was the closure of the school he wanted, rather than he arguing for the closure of another community’s school.

An Uncommon parent stood up and explained that “not every parent is willing to do what is absolutely necessary to make their child great”.

Communities United activists did not respond well. They booed and heckled parents and Urban Promise speakers. They asked that Uncommon Parent “how much are they paying you to talk?”

It was ugly and it was heartbreaking.

Because parents, students and administrators at Sharp are doing everything right. They have amongst the best scores in the city. But since enrollment is down over the past decade, they are at risk of losing their school.

As Renaissance Schools increase their seats, this will play out over and over again in the city. In this case, it was not a district choice but a state choice that caused declining enrollment. Camden Promise opened a series of charter schools in the same neighborhood as Sharp (these schools were approved by the state). But it is the district’s choice now, and the logic from the district is that parents have voted with their feet, and declining enrollment meant difficult decisions needed to be made about Sharp.

This “voting with their feet” line continues to be nonsense. Compare Sharp to Camden Pride (the Urban Promise elementary school) on the 2014-2015 State Report Cards. First, just taking Sharp’s K-4 grades, Sharp served more students in 2014-2015 (247 to 239 ). 

Second, Sharp serves marginally more economically disadvantaged families and English Language Learners and has an even ratio of males to females (182 males to 181 females) while Camden Pride had a 139 female, 100 male split in 2014-2015. Since females scoring higher than males on tests, this is normally a sign that the school is sorting low performers out of its schools.

Most importantly, Sharp serves significantly more students with disabilities (48 to 16 – 13% to 7%)Sharp does all this while scoring and showing growth that competes with Camden’s top schools.

It’s difficult to rank schools with disparate populations, but given population differences, Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker’s model for school efficiency evaluates Sharp as a much better school than Camden Pride — with Sharp coming in at 474th best school in the state, and Camden Pride coming in as the 755th best school in the state (this model was build using data from 2012, 2013 and 2014 data). Here’s the list. And here’s the methodology.

Let’s be clear. Sharp appears to outperform Camden Pride. Sharp serves significantly more students with disability as Camden Pride. And more parents have chosen Sharp than Camden Pride. None of this is an indictment of Camden Pride — schools are inherently good places, and often parents and students love their schools. It’s an indictment of a system that knowingly opens too many schools then pits communities against each other when they must be closed.

So if Sharp is high-performing, had more students as recently as 2014-2015 and is serving a more challenging population,  why is it being moved? Likely it’s because while Camden Promise has advocates for its schools, the state-run district’s office sees school closures as a positive sign that parents are voting with their feet. They see these closures as a necessary part of the process. Parents, families and communities are set against each other as part of the plan to move to a portfolio district. It was never possible to approve 10,000 Renaissance School seats in a 14,000 student district and not close schools.

This seen will play out over and over again over the next decade. On one side will be a Charter Management Organization eager to expand its schools. On the other side will be parents who, instead of having a district that advocates for its schools, has a district that believes in “voting with your feet” and is willing to close schools on parents despite evidence that schools are working. Schools will close. Charters will move into the building. There will remain too many schools in the district. And the cycle will repeat. All the while, communities will be fighting with each other because their school is threatened. And the Camden School District will be the one actor in the conflict consistently willing to shutter its own buildings (can you imagine any of the charter chains doing so?). This will be the legacy of education reform in Camden.

I’ve called for parental votes on closures before. Until the Camden School District is willing to be an advocate for its parents, rather than an advocate for a “portfolio district” that opens too many schools and pits community against community as they close, there needs to be a check on school district’s power to close schools. If there was an elected board, if that board serves as a governing body not an advisory board, that might be such a check. But Camden residents have been stripped of their rights to control their own education system.

The district told the community that they would listen to Sharp parents about the proposed closure/merger. They insist that this is for educational purposes and it was the idea of the Sharp Principal. Allowing parents to vote on that decision would put the district’s money where its mouth is. Anything less is perpetuating a model of education that pits community against community, school against school, and leaves district parents without anyone to support them.

Or, as we know it, the state-controlled Camden School District.

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