Public views on some education reform efforts have become so polarized that it’s a little like everyone is in a boat together and paddling as hard as they can – in opposite directions.
Last week I was in Washington, D.C. where an education ‘think tank,’ the Fordham Institute, hosted a symposium called “Rethinking Education Governance.” The keynote speaker was none other than our own Acting Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf, who was praised for his education reform efforts in New Jersey.
Just 48 hours earlier I had been in Highland Park, Middlesex County, where the school board, municipal officials, legislators and parents were meeting. They were united in their opposition to a proposed charter school that would involve students from Highland Park, Edison and New Brunswick. The group is planning to conduct a protest at the New Jersey Department of Education offices (an “Occupy NJDOE” protest) on Dec.16, which is the day by which the comments on the charter school’s application are due to NJDOE.
Proponents of charter school expansion may interpret the opposition as just a group of well-organized NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard) or community members being used as a front by some education special-interest group. That would be a mistake on their part. As an observer at several of these events, I am seeing this movement grow. There are community members up in arms, not only in the three districts I mentioned, but in many others such as Princeton, Teaneck, and Cherry Hill. I have seen the crowds, and this movement is not made up of education professionals such as teachers and administrators. It is comprised of the community members. Anyone in the education community who has tried to organize parents and community members en masse knows how hard it is to engage people in the process for any length of time. The movement against charters has been in place for a couple of years and seems to be growing. So this issue is striking a nerve with many community members. What is that nerve?
For the most part the objection is not against the concept of charter schools, although there are many who have an issue with a charter school that focuses its curriculum on a specific ethnic group. The objection is based more on not having any input in the decision, especially since most of the money to run the schools in these communities comes from local property taxes, not state aid. Many speakers at the Highland Park rally viewed this as a “state mandate – state pay” issue, since it affects how they allocate local resources for their public schools. The funding mechanism for charter school forces districts to cut funds from their own operating budgets to pay the charter school. Many parents feel that their child’s education is being compromised for a charter school that they did not ask for. They want the right to vote on this local issue.
The other issue is that many community members believe that their schools are high-performing and that the concept behind charter schools is to give choices to students in so-called “failing” schools. Since they do not view their own schools as failing, they see the proposed charter as an unneeded program.
This opposition, which is reflected in Highland Park and other communities, is having an effect on public policy. Gov. Christie has already stated that while he thinks that charter school placement is a state decision, he wants to “focus” his efforts in those areas where the students need it the most. That may be an indication that he has noticed the opposition to charter schools and he is adjusting his policy a bit because, to him, it has been primarily about improving educational outcomes in our poorest communities. The governor may have tweaked his position (something that he made public in an interview with NJSBA) because he noticed the same thing that I did: that the protests are not coming from his normal opponents (the NJEA or other education groups) but parents and the community.
So will the community group’s December 16 protest called “Occupy NJDOE” have a short term or even long term impact? In the short term, this charter school’s application may be impacted. It has been rejected three times before, and may be rejected for a fourth time. Over the long term, the question is more difficult. That is because Acting Commissioner Cerf has a different philosophy than previous commissioners of education and I doubt that he will change his beliefs dramatically. He represents a new type of educational leader. At the Fordham Institute I was able to see the new philosophy that is being pushed not only in New Jersey but nationally. What is the new philosophy? That will have to wait until next week’s blog.