Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My speech before the Senate Education Committee 10/13/11

Here's a good launching point to give you some background on not only the situation here in Highland Park, but how it ties into the "big picture."

Below is the testimony I presented to the Senate Education Committee when Senator Ruiz held a hearing on several pieces of pending charter legislation, including Senate Bill 2243, which would require voter or board of ed approval before charters could open in a district.  This would solve so may of the problems we are facing here in Highland Park, and I was honored to testify about our experience.  I testified alongside other organizers from Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots organization that advocates for public schools, specifically on charters, vouchers and the funding formula.

Several things were quite striking about the hearing.  First, the members of the Education Committee we most wanted to hear our testimony because they were not supportive of the legislation, Senators Kean and Allen, just didn't show.  Second, the lobbyists there to argue against the legislation, the New Jersey Charter School Association, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, all came in their crisp suits carrying shiny brochures, and chit-chatted in the hall with the representatives from the Department of Education.  The DOE folks certainly weren't looking for any hallway chats to hear the concerns of any of the Save Our Schools folks...

Most importantly, all three lobbying organizations, there to argue against the reforms advocated by ACTUAL New Jersey parents with children in the public schools, are funded by the Walton Foundation.  In 2010 alone they received:

New Jersey Charter School Association $950,000
National Association of Charter School Authorizers $1,874,274
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools $1,175,000

The Walton Foundation spent $157,220,283 in 2010 alone "to infuse competitive pressure into America’s K-12 education system."  

While these lobbying groups may be called "New Jersey" this, or "National" that, they are all CORPORATE reformers.  Make no mistake about it.  Their agenda has nothing to do with what's good for this state or this country.  It has to do with what's good for them and the foundations that support them.

Without further ado, here's my testimony:

Good morning Senators.  I am here to talk about the need for local control over charter schools in our state.  I am from Highland Park, a small, diverse district with four schools that educate 1300 students.  Over 50 languages are spoken in the homes of our district. 

We currently send students to two charters, Greater Brunswick Charter School in New Brunswick, which follows a Montessori philosophy, and Hatikvah International Academy Charter School in East Brunswick, which is a Hebrew Language Immersion Elementary School.  We are also faced with an application for a third charter, Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School.   

Currently eighteen Highland Park students attend Greater Brunswick in grades K-6 and five students attend Hatikvah in grades K-3.  For these 23 students Highland Park pays $352,208 in tuition and transportation costs.  This is roughly equivalent to the salary of six teachers. 

I ask you, when we lose 23 students spread over seven grades, how are we to cut six teachers to absorb the subsequent loss of funding? 

In Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf’s September 2011 letter to charter school leaders he stated, “The promise of charter schools is that they will offer parents another high-quality public school alternative, especially for children whose needs are not being successfully met elsewhere.” 

Highland Park ranks among the top 200 high schools in the country, has a graduation rate of 100% and 98% of our students go on to college.  It’s therefore important to look at whether Highland Park student’s needs are being met as successfully when they leave our schools.  The 2010 No Child Left Behind School Report Cards for Highland Park and Greater Brunswick reveal that almost five times more kids in Highland Park are scoring Advanced Proficient in Math and Language Arts than at Greater Brunswick.

New Brunswick is the host district for Greater Brunswick, and pays $3,625,000 for 241 students to attend.  While New Brunswick has far more ELL and almost twice as many Free Lunch students, their test scores in Language Arts are roughly equivalent to those of Greater Brunswick.  However, Greater Brunswick fairs far worse in Math.  Almost twice as many New Brunswick students scored advanced proficient in Math than Greater Brunswick students.

In that same letter Chris Cerf also said, “the Department of Education must set a high bar for accountability and ensure that these schools are fulfilling their promise of improving student achievement and serving all students.”

I ask you, why is Greater Brunswick allowed to take funds from public schools when they aren’t meeting their student’s needs as successfully as the public school districts and are serving significantly less ELL and Free Lunch students than their host district?  

There are also significant concerns that Hebrew Language Immersion schools are not intended to serve our diverse public school population.  Of the four children from Highland Park who enrolled in Hatikvah last year two enrolled in the district only to immediately transfer to Hatikvah, without ever sitting in a public school classroom.  There is evidence that Hatikvah failed to report to the state that students were transferring from private schools.  If children transfer from private schools to a charter the state is responsible for paying the first year’s tuition, not the district. 

I ask you, when students attending charter schools have never stepped foot in a public school classroom, how can we say that charters are meeting an unmet need in the public schools?

There is legitimate concern that these are not isolated cases and that if Tikun Olam is approved many students would come from private Jewish schools, not public schools.  In fact, the lead and qualifying founder, who is from Highland Park, does not send her own children to our public schools, she sends them to a private yeshiva.

According to New Jersey Charter School Law the lead and qualifying founder is ineligible to found a charter school, as is the Edison qualifying founder.  The law clearly states that charters may be established by teaching staff members, parents with children attending the schools of the district, or a combination of teaching staff members and parents.  Neither qualifying founder is a teacher and the superintendents in both school districts confirmed that neither has children enrolled in their public school districts. 

The founder’s ineligibility was overlooked by the Department of Education in two application cycles, only to be uncovered by members of our community in the third application.  This raises troubling questions regarding the DOE’s lack of oversight of the charter application review process.  There is no evidence that the DOE has acknowledged that the founders are ineligible to apply for a charter.  In fact less than one week after the DOE denied Tikun Olam for the third time, the United States Department of Education awarded Tikun Olam a $200,000 grant to plan their curriculum and open their doors. 

I ask you, when founders of charter schools are not parents of public school children, how are charters like the proposed Tikun Olam offering “parents another high-quality public school alternative” and not a publically funded private school education?

Members of the Highland Park community have collected over 2100 petition signatures and 600 letters of opposition to Tikun Olam.  These have been delivered to the DOE and I have copies here for your review.  Our elected officials oppose Tikun Olam as well.  Our school board, Borough Council, Mayor, Freeholders, Assemblymen and Senator have all been outspoken about the need for local control over charter schools.

I ask you, when less than 2% of Highland Park public school students leave for two charter schools does that demonstrate an unmet need in our district? 

I ask you, why shouldn’t the parents of 98% of Highland Park public school students get to decide if we think it’s worth the price we will pay to finance charter schools in our district?

I ask you, why shouldn’t we have local control? 

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