This speech, given recently at a protest in Maplewood, N.J., against the state’s charter school policy, was delivered by Stan Karp, who taught English and journalism in Paterson for 30 years. He is now the director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey’s Education Law Center and an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.

As delivered by Stan Karp:

Thanks for standing up for public schools and thanks for inviting some of us from Montclair to stand with you. Montclair schools, which have often been cited as a national model of quality integrated public education, are facing a similar challenge.

An application to open the Quest Academy charter school in Montclair is now a finalist after being rejected four times. If approved, the charter school would draw over $2 million from the district budget. Quest promises to serve a small group of students with “small classes,” “individualized instruction,” and “cutting edge technology.” But, if approved, it will leave students at Montclair High School with larger classes, less individualized instruction, and less cutting edge technology. It will erode programs and staff at a high school that last year sent 93% of its students to post-secondary education including 91% of its African American students.

And that’s what’s wrong with New Jersey's broken charter school policy.

Instead of providing better opportunities for all students, it's providing subsidized spaces for a few at the expense of the many. Because it does not give a voice to local districts and voters in deciding where to open charters and how to integrate them equitably into the public system, it promotes polarization among parents and pockets of privilege instead of districtwide improvement.

In the past 10 years, the character of the charter school movement has changed dramatically from community-based, educator-initiated local efforts that create alternatives for a small number of students to nationally funded efforts by foundations, investors, and educational management companies to create a parallel, more privatized system. This is eroding the common ground that public education in a democracy needs to survive. 

When I first moved to Montclair in the early 1980s, in large part because of the excellent public schools and the pre-K program, over 20% of the town's school budget came from federal and state sources. There was desegregation aid, transportation aid, magnet school aid, and other support.

Today that's all gone and instead the [state] Department of Education and the governor are promoting charters, vouchers, budget cuts, and other steps toward privatization that are hurting our kids and our schools. Montclair needs full funding of the state funding formula, including the expansion of pre-K that was promised when the formula was passed in 2008. Underfunding has cost Montclair over $10 million in the past three years; we can't afford bleeding by charter schools on top of that.

I was a high school teacher for 30 years in Paterson so I know firsthand how much our schools need to improve and how difficult it is for them to compensate for the inequality that exists all around them. But the current push for deregulated charters and privatization is doing nothing to reduce the concentrations of 70%, 80%, and 90% poverty that remain the central problem in our urban schools.

And it’s doing nothing to address growing need and underfunding in our suburban ones. These policies are draining resources, staff, and energy for innovation away from other district schools, often while creaming better prepared students and more committed parents. This is especially a problem in big-city public systems that urgently need renewal and resources but are increasingly being left behind with the biggest challenges.

No one questions the desire of parents to find the best options they can for their children. And charter school teachers and parents are not our enemies. On the contrary, we should be allies in fighting some of the counterproductive testing and curriculum practices raining down on all of us from above. We should find more and better ways to integrate charters into common systems of accountability and support, and that has to mean giving local communities a bigger voice in where and how charters should be opened. Where practices like greater autonomy over curriculum or freedom from bureaucratic regulations are valid, they should be extended to all schools without sacrificing the oversight we need to preserve equity and accountability.

But at the level of state and federal education policy, charters are providing a reform cover for dismantling the [traditional] public school system and [have become] an investment opportunity for those who see education as a business rather than a fundamental institution of democratic civic life.

It’s time for a moratorium on opening all new charters in New Jersey until, as Assemblywoman Mila Jasey has called for, we have an independent assessment of their performance and their impact, and until we have a more democratic process that includes local approval and participation in setting charter school policy.

Now is exactly the right time for us to be joining together to strengthen, not weaken, the public and democratic character of our education system.


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