I was wrong.

Promoted by Rosi. Keith Benson is an educator, president of Camden Education Association, a Camden parent, and an adjunct professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. He’s the author of Education Reform and Gentrification in the Age of #CamdenRising: Public Education and Urban Redevelopment in Camden, NJ,’ available at Peter Lang Publishing. Find Keith on Twitter at @KeithEricBenson

In June 2014, Jim Epstein for the Reason wrote a piece, “The Slow and Glorious Death of America’s Worst School”

Paymon Rouhanifard, who’s wisely made improving school safety his first concern, is probably the best superintendent Camden has ever had, but he won’t be able to turn around the school system. Rather, he’s the perfect man to turn out the lights.

He added: 

Today (2014), there are 10 charter schools operating in Camden, serving 4,250 students, or 27 percent of all Camden’s public-school kids. That’s up from 22 percent the prior year. In the fall, three new charters are slated to open, with ambitions of eventually serving a combined 9,600 students. That would turn Camden into an all-charter city.

Since the arrival of state-imposed, corporate-operated charters in Camden, known as renaissance schools, Camden City School District (CCSD) became the only district in the state responsible for financially supporting three different education systems within its one budget. CCSD is responsible for supporting the renaissance schools numbering eleven and growing; the city’s eight charter schools, along with nineteen of its own schools. The under such constraints, the financial burden placed on CCSD due to awful, if not deliberate, policy is overwhelming.

As a result of Trenton’s Urban Hope Act (2012) signed into law by then-Governor Christie, and sponsored by then-State Senator Norcross, Camden schools and its students face a $27M deficit heading into the 2019-2020. Is it because of wasteful, capricious spending on behalf of the District’s current administration? Largely, no. It is due to poor fiscal management on behalf of the prior administration, and unstrained, unchecked proliferation of the city’s renaissance schools. While some throughout the state and school choice proponents may believe city parents are choosing non-district schools in efforts to secure the best education for their child, what is actually true is that renaissance schools overwhelmingly got their students due to forced school closures and leasing those same buildings with the students already in them to renaissance providers. That is not school-choice; that’s school-coercion

As a community member, city educator, and union president whose child has always attended city public schools, I was laser-focused on protecting our District’s schools by meticulously tracking our enrollment and trumpeting the successes of our public schools. I realized this year, quite late, that the threat of the future of Camden schools is not due to city parents seeking a “better option” and deciding to flee our schools. To the contrary, our District’s enrollment has remained steady and typically swells throughout the academic year despite repeated and commonly known manipulation by Camden Enrollment, a third-party entity funded by pro-charter organizations whom the prior administration saw fit to gift over $1M to handle the District’s enrollment process. And, while I and many other community activists focused on protecting residents from Camden Enrollment’s shenanigans, promoting our schools , and monitoring student enrollment believing the trope that “money follows the student” and that as long as our buildings were filled our schools would survive, I hadn’t considered that policy from Trenton was real danger to our survival in that it purposefully to siphons away CCSD’s resources needed to remain sustainable.

So, while I and others were fighting a battle to sustain our district from collapse due to the fallacy that parents would flee our schools or be funneled out through Camden Enrollment, what the most pressing threat to our District is the exploding budgets for renaissance schools that have ballooned despite being overwhelmingly under-enrolled. Last year for instance, between the renaissance schools and charters, despite state law outlawing busing for high school students within 2.5 miles and primary school students within 2 miles of their schools, CCSD paid $18M for non-District school’s student transportation – and the amount is set to increase even higher next year. For the 2018-2019 school year, that was $18M that could have served to provide our public-school students extra supports, more afterschool activities, more electives, but due to predatory legislation from Trenton, our CCSD schools and students had to sacrifice a king’s ransom for a service that is off limits to our own children.

That is just one example. What many don’t consider is that every perk or bell-and-whistle touted in the city’s non-District schools, is paid for by the public-school District at the cost of denying our own students. It doesn’t stop there. As such expenses paid to charter and renaissance schools from District coffers increases, it has a ripple effect in eventually costing our 7600 students needed course materials and offerings, vital instructional and support staff before incurring the ultimate loss of their neighborhood public school.  

The stakes here are high. CCSD desperately needs additional aid from the State and NJ Department of Education to close the current $27M deficit for our schools and our children – and to foot the bills of two additional schooling systems. I was wrong in focusing on our District’s enrollment as a means of protecting our public schools when I should have concentrated on the threat presented by policy. I should have known that parents here still have confidence in our public-schools and its educators to care for an educate their children as we have for over a century. I was wrong. But we need Trenton to help make this situation right.

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