On January 30, 2014, Camden’s state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard announced that two charter chains, Mastery and Uncommon, would be “the next organizations to be approved under the Urban Hope Act, the 2012 state law that allows a hybrid version of charter schools to open in Camden, one of three pilot districts covered under the legislation.”
One problem (well, actually, lots of problems, but we’ll get into those later) that was quickly noted by Save Our Schools NJ, a state-wide grassroots organization formed by parents to “protect and preserve New Jersey’s excellent public schools”: the Mastery and Uncommon applications, and Rouhanifard’s promotions of them, were in direct violation of the Urban Hope Act for three separate reasons:
1) The applications fail to propose new renaissance school facilities or to provide the required information about those facilities.
2) The applications fail to provide the required opportunity for public input.
3) Mastery and Uncommon Schools proposed to house their renaissance schools in temporary facilities, which is not permitted under the urban hope act.
In May, Save Our Schools NJ sent a four-page letter to NJ Commissioner of Education David Hespe, detailing the violations of the Camden deal and requesting that Hespe reject the Mastery and Uncommon applications because of their illegality according to Urban Hope laws.
Yet late at night last Tuesday, as SOSNJ reports, this happened:
Legislation was introduced and voted on in the NJ Senate and Assembly Budget Committees without the legislators being able to see the bills or having a real understanding of what they were approving. The legislation then was quickly pushed through the full Senate and Assembly.
This legislation retroactively changed the Urban Hope law so that the actions of Mastery and Uncommon were no longer illegal.
So, rather than stopping their illegal activities when they were exposed, the predatory Mastery and Uncommon charter chains turned to their friends in the Norcross organization to “fix things.”
This is the corporate equivalent of slipping the police officer $500 to look the other way while you rob your neighbor’s house.
And, while the Norcross legislators were at it, they added an extra year to the program, so that a fourth renaissance charter chain could be identified and rammed through the application process. Look for that to be completed by the fall of 2015.
(Hey, look: another classic example of legislators making laws–and then completely disregarding or changing those laws for political purposes. Chapter 78, which Christie signed in 2011 and requires state pension contributions? Who cares. Urban Hope laws, which set forth specific guidelines for charter establishment? Meh.)
So what will be the result of the Mastery and Uncommon invasion in Camden? SOSNJ notes that the city currently serves 11,000 students in traditional public schools, and 3,000 in charter schools–but by 2019, 9,000 Camden children will be enrolled in charters. (And all this amid a “budget crisis” officials blame for mass teacher layoffs. That’s a completely separate issue; see here and here.)
Yeah…about those charters: now’s a good time to repost, again, some information on Uncommon (see here and here) and Mastery. A few very troubling things they have in common: histories of segregation (they don’t serve the same populations as do district schools), high attrition rates, and ridiculous discipline policies–all of which set them apart from traditional public schools.
Here, a Philadelphia Mastery student decries his school’s “zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies, which, among other things, force students to wear “demerit cards” around their necks:
This constant feeling of being watched for every move you make becomes stressful rather fast. It makes me, and I’m pretty sure a great deal of other students, feel as though school is our enemy, thus not encouraging us to be enthusiastic about attending. Is this the true purpose of the school system? At my school, Mastery Charter School Lenfest Campus, there are a number of different methods to mete out punishments, with the most prominent being the demerit system. Students at my school are required to carry around a demerit card with our school ID badges. The card lists categories of trivial and minor violations ranging from chewing gum, improper uniform (like having your shirt untucked), disruption, lateness, body language, language, disrespect, environment (e.g. leaving a workspace unkempt), integrity, and being unprepared. This long list puts students in a constant state of high alert, making us wary of every single thing we do. In my opinion offenses as trivial as simply saying “no” to teachers or disagreeing with them are not offenses worthy of a missed day of education. To my peers and me, this situation is absolutely unacceptable. It is sending a message to the world that education takes a back seat to talking back, that education takes a back seat to throwing a paper ball across the room, that education takes a back seat to an untucked shirt.
(For more information on the damaging effects of “zero tolerance” discipline policies, sometimes referred to as “no excuses” policies, that many charters implement, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
Is this what Camden’s children, most of whom are socioeconomically-disadvantaged, need? And, more importantly, is this what parents in Camden want for their children? Most importantly, has anyone asked them? And would anyone care about their response?
Certainly not Chris Christie, who said, in response to community outcry about Cami Anderson’s
Two Newarks One Newark plan: “I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the schools, not them.”
So let’s be clear: “school choice,” especially when it’s driven by shady 11pm committee meetings that lack transparency, is really about “politicians’ choice.”