NJEA: URGENT Action needed on Urban Hope Act on behalf Staff and Students

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If the NJEA and Camden City School District care about public education in Camden and their educators, employment discrimination, and the delivery of quality public education in Camden City, legal action must be taken to radically reform the Urban Hope Act (UHA) of 2012 by the District (to protect its own school system and their students), but certainly by the NJEA in the interest of their dues-paying members (and students) .

SHORT VERSION: Camden's nearly 1150 public educators who pay NJEA nearly $1000 annually of their net pay, have their jobs threatened every year because of the annual fiscal strain initiated by the Urban Hope Act (UHA). UHA has allowed the establishing of nearly 15 CMO-operated schools which: has directly caused sustained closures of District public schools; the laying off of hundreds (near exclusively) unionized educators, support staff, custodial staff, and administrators since 2014; and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars directly impacting students in the form of reduced curriculum and school services.   

ACTION SOUGHT: That NJEA utilizes its massive legal apparatus to challenge the legality of UHA's discriminatory impact on public school staff, and its harmful impact on Camden's public school children - in court. Fast. 

DEEPER CONTEXT: For those unaware of former Governor Chris Christie’s, George Norcross’ and Dana Redd’s mis-adventures in using Camden as their collective petri dish for marginalizing and alienating residents under the mirage dubbed, “Camden Rising”, one of the elements comprised within “Camden Rising” was the taking over of Camden’s public school system and imposing up to fifteen corporate-operated charter schools (KIPP, Mastery, and UnCommon) on Camden via the UHA. To be clear, the UHA applies only to Camden and was the brainchild of Norcross and Christie as it aided both men’s ambition of amassing more power by stripping decision making abilities from Camden residents – those who actually live here. Norcross used his brother Donald to introduce the legislation as state senator, Assemblypersons Angel Fuentes and Gilbert Wilson as co-sponsors, and shepherded the bill through the upper chamber by Steve Sweeney. The bill passed easily primarily due to Norcross having an iron-grip on South Jersey Democrats’ political futures, and because none of the legislators supporting the bill outside of the 5th legislative district, are impacted by its negative impacts as it only effects Camden residents and Camden students. 

Today the Camden City School District (CCSD) is forced to support its own District schools (19), charter schools (8), and renaissance schools (10) – effectively, three separate school districts with one budget. Quite predictably, the District being responsible for supporting 90% of the city’s charter school budget, and 95% of the city’s renaissance budget causes an enormous annual drain on the District’s public school budget, which is still the segment of city schools were most students attend school. The mandated addition of 10 of the 15 renaissance schools also caused an explosion to the District’s transportation budget with the District spending over 300% more on transportation today, than before renaissance schools were established. In 2020-2021, the District will spend about $120M on renaissance schools and transportation – a little over 30% of CCSD’s total budget. That’s $120M that could have went to improving District facilities, modernizing and expanding course offerings, and improving the District’s fiscal health. What’s more, because of the vast pool of outside funders and philanthropists supporting corporate charter schools KIPP, UnCommon, and Mastery have an endless rolodex of wealthy financiers and powerful politicians from which to elicit material and financial donations if they ever found themselves in need.

The consequence is this: with every passing year, a bigger financial squeeze is put on our Camden public-school children, our schools, and District staff because renaissance schools were forced on this community without community input. First, our District lost thousands of students because the former superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, simply closed public schools without parental or community input, and gave them away to renaissance providers, costing the District thousands of students and millions dollars, while providing enrollment and financial gains for renaissance providers. Secondly, the determination that Camden’s public schools were awful hinged inordinately on student performance on standardized test scores – a metric that has long lacked legitimacy among academic researchers and educators alike, and increasingly colleges themselves. Using standardized assessments to judge the quality of education, as was rampant under both Christie and Rouhanifard, only demonstrated their calculated interest to target Camden schools for takeover, and their disregard for established education research. And with that, CCSD is paying the heavy price now.

Fortunately, there is still time for the NJEA and CCSD to lead and seek substantive changes without harming any existing renaissance school or student attending those schools. NJEA and CCSD should demand changes to the 95% funding requirement, and mandate that renaissance schools be responsible for providing their own transportation given renaissance schools’ unique ability to garner resources from outside entities in a way our public schools cannot. The NJEA and CCSD argue to cap the number of renaissance schools to the number it currently stands at 10 as opposed to 15 – which would surely cause a near total collapse of an entire public-school system in NJ under their watch. (Think: a slowly, and avoidable Hurricane Katrina aftermath.) None of these suggestions are radical in nature and could easily be implemented while not harming any child or existing school while protecting traditional Camden public education, a fundamental entity in this city.

The other suggestion, which would be more brazen yet doable, would be for the District to utilize their Brown and Connery attorney to challenge the legality of the UHA on the grounds that the legislation singles out only Camden public schools and public school students to bear the brunt of political decisions that never included public input from the Camden public. 

What I am urging as President of the Camden Education Association, a local of nearly 1150 members is for NJEA Leadership to commission their vast legal forces, and the District to use their legal might, to fight to protect our schools and public education here in Camden by challenging the law that is discriminating against unionized educators and holding our school back from providing the best for our young people and our community. And because the bulk of NJ officials, to this point, opted out of their duty to protect public education in Camden since UHA only impacts Camden, this only leaves CCSD and our NJEA, to whom our Members pay nearly $1,000 in dues annually, to stand up and fight for its members and their students through the courts.