South Jersey Democrats take a page out of the Betsy DeVos playbook

Here’s how toxic Betsy DeVos-style “school choice” has become: even DeVos herself is softening her language (if not her policies). There’s reasons for that: 1) the idea that school choice alone can improve student outcomes is increasingly being combatted by evidence that shows charter schools, on the whole, perform no better than public schools (and virtual charters or for-profit charters perform worse) and 2) the subset of schools with some evidence of gains — commonly called “no excuses” schools — are coming under fire for ugly discipline incidents. Combine that with the toxicity of Trump’s own brand in Democrat circles, and Democrat support for “school choice” is disappearing. Everywhere except South Jersey that is.

Today, there is a key vote on an expansion of the Urban Hope Act (Senate Bill S2722) put forth by South Jersey Democrats in both sides of the legislature. The Urban Hope Act (originally authored by then State Senator Don Norcross) is legislation designed specifically for Camden — no other city chose to use the legislation to bring Renaissance schools to their city — that allows for a new, hybrid type of school that is run by nonprofit Charter Management Organizations (in this case, “no excuses” schools) that have “catchment areas” like public schools, but also allow schools from other districts. Hailed as a potential hybrid solution to the charter-public conflict, the result has been much more controversial.

The bill enables further growth by these Renaissance Schools in two areas:

  1. it changes the rules around Renaissance expansion to essentially allow unlimited expansion for these schools. Expansion has been a contended issue for years. An obscure clause in the original legislation allowed schools to open new schools as extension of the same “campus” within two miles. The new legislation takes it even further — allowing expansion within 2 miles of any previous expansion. In a city that’s only 9 square miles, that’s pretty much the whole city.
  2. it codifies Camden Enrollment into law, requiring the experimental (and largely privately funded) enrollment system as the means for all parents to choose their school. As of now, only Camden parents who want to leave their traditional public school need use the system.

Dr. Keith Benson, a Camden parent and teacher and the President of the Camden Education Association took to Facebook to explain the new bill: [note: To unmute, adjust the volume slider bottom right of video]:

Camden Parents: Whether you know it or not… the war’s on. I’m NOT talking about Lebron or Drake and Pusha T… I’m talking about laws being proposed to separate YOUR child from our public schools AND YOU from your homes💯We can’t continue to stay uninformed. MONDAY, IS A BIG DAY IN THE BATTLE FOR OUR CITY.

Posted by Keith Eric on Friday, June 15, 2018

From the beginning, residents and advocates feared that “school choice” would be a facade in Camden. That there would be a thumb on the scales allowing politically connected schools to grow. As this legislation shows, there are a series of political decisions happening around this “choice” model — school closures, enrollment systems, and favorable legislation for a subset of schools. All of that is happening while the district is under state control, leaving residents without a voice in the process.

Today’s vote in the Senate Budget Committee on S2722 is another step in the process of not just radically altering Camden’s public education system, but doing it by stripping communities of color of the right to control their own systems, and doing it in the image of a “school choice” model championed by Trump’s least popular cabinet appointee: Betsy DeVos. Camden already has the second highest proportion of charter school students in the country. This bill enables a subset of those schools expand without limit.

Camden activist Vida Neil is live streaming testimony from the hearing (below). We’ll continue to update you as this develops and the vote takes place. [note: To unmute, adjust the volume slider bottom right of video]:

Posted by Vida Neil on Monday, June 18, 2018

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