Sunday, March 9, 2014


My good blogging buddy Jersey Jazzman has been trying to make sense of outgoing Commissioner Cerf's decision to deny expansion to a suburban Hebrew language immersion charter (Hatikvah) when he approved the expansion of an urban dual language charter (HoLa) that, at least on the surface, seem very similar.
Two charters, both causing economic distress to their sending districts, both contributing to the ongoing segregation of New Jersey's schools. Yet one is approved while another is not. If you can explain how any of this makes sense, Chris Christie has a job for you at the Port Authority. 
His reference to the Port Authority may sound flippant, but it really isn't. 

What Did Cerf's DOE Consider?

I've read both Hatikvah's denial letter and HoLa's approval letter, and Chief Innovation Officer Evo Popoff was very clear; the state's decisions were based in large part on 'student performance on state assessments" mostly taken straight from the NJ School Performance Reports.

If you look at the state's data, and believe it paints a complete picture and merits use in high-stakes decisions, (which I don't) such as whether or not a charter should be allowed to expand, then HOLA is doing far better with their students than Hatikvah. According to the reports, HoLa is performing in the 77th percentile statewide, and in the 99th percentile compared to their "peer schools" while Hatikvah is in the 58th percentile statewide and in only the 20th percentile compared to their peer schools.  

This must have come as quite the shock to Hatikvah, which just last year ranked in the 99th percentile compared to their peer schools, a fact which they trumpeted in their promotional materials when they were trying to increase enrollment after the school year had already started and they weren't fully enrolled.

Live by the sword, die by the sword, as they say...

According to the DOE, the drop in Hatikvah's standardized test scores academic performance was, at least on paper, their ultimate undoing.
A letter on Wednesday from Department of Education Chief Innovation Officer Evo Popoff renewed the elementary school’s charter for five years but denied a middle-school expansion into eighth grade over the next three years. Popoff cited “a decline in the school’s academic performance in the 2012-13 school year."
Both letters also claim the state reviewed "public correspondence and comment." 

My bet is the correspondence had far more impact on the final decision than the academic performance. Especially when you take a close look at the players involved, particularly in Hoboken.

HoLa's Approval

Consider this, posted on the HoLa Facebook page after they received the "GREAT NEWS!"

Wow! That's a pretty juicy list. 

Let's look at a few.

UNION CITY — Gov. Chris Christie picked up another endorsement from a powerful Democrat today. 
State Sen. Brian Stack, the mayor of Union City and a Democratic powerbroker in Hudson County, said this afternoon that the Republican governor has been one the most responsive and impressive state leaders he’s ever worked with. 
“I’ve had a great relationship with him for four years. There are things we agreed on, things we disagree on,” Stack said, noting, for example, that they have different views on same-sex marriage. “He’s been a governor that’s been truly responsive. I mean, you call him, he calls you back the same day. And he’ll tell you if he can do something or he can’t do it.” (emphasis mine)
I seem to recall something about Democratic Mayoral endorsements for Governor Christie in the news recently...
...what has emerged among Democrats in New Jersey is a feeling that those who played ball with the governor enjoy favored status, while others have been shut out or had access curtailed. That is not an entirely unusual dynamic in politics, but it is one that conflicts with Christie’s carefully groomed image as a leader driven only by what is right, not petty politics.
Also note that both of the Assembly candidates that ran with Stack crossed party lines to endorse Christie too, and they both supported HoLa's expansion.

Then there's Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer... 

Yes, that Dawn Zimmer! The Dawn Zimmer that blew the whistle on Christie and accused him of withholding Sandy aid if she didn't support a development project the governor favored. (In case you're wondering, Zimmer's letter to Commissioner Cerf in support of HoLa predates her accusations.)

Something else you should know about Dawn Zimmer is that her kids attend one of Hoboken's other illustrious charter schools, Elysian.
On Thursday night, Mayor Dawn Zimmer, whose allies on the board normally side with Toback, released a statement saying the charter schools and other public schools should not be in competition and should work together. Zimmer has two children in another of the city’s three charter schools.
So it would seem that Christie and his DOE had some serious political pressure on them to approve HoLa. How could the Christie administration go against the Hudson County "Democratic powerbroker" and his running mates given their endorsement, or risk even the appearance that further retribution was being exacted on Zimmer by denying HoLa?

In addition, HoLa parents conducted an organized campaign to rally support for their proposal, and camped out at a Hoboken BOE meeting when they caught wind that Hoboken Superintendent Mark Toback planned to send a letter of opposition to Commissioner Cerf. They provided hours worth of public commentary and threatened to leave town if the application was not approved. 
Toback said that he removed the letter from Tuesday’s agenda after receiving phone calls and emails from concerned HoLa parents throughout the day. He said he is hoping confrontation can be avoided and replaced with productive conversation. Still, parents spoke for almost four hours at the meeting in support of HoLa. 

Parents defended the uniqueness of the school’s Spanish immersion program and its success over the past five years (which has been debated by Toback), and many parents said that while the Board of Education might want to fight its expansion in order to drive up enrollment in the public schools, they would be leaving town if HoLa doesn’t go to eighth grade. 

“For a lot of parents in this room, if we don’t get an expansion, we’re leaving,” said Jose Battle. “We’re committed to this school and we love this community, but if you plan on killing this program, tell us right away, because there is no path from my daughter’s sixth grade classroom to another school in this town.” 
(emphasis mine)
It's been well documented that the charters in Hoboken cater to a strikingly different population than the public schools, with the charters mostly white and affluent and the publics mostly minority and poor. 

But these facts didn't stop Tom Moran and the Star Ledger Editorial Board from endorsing HoLa's expansion plan, and they even went so far as to call HoLa a "winning NJ charter school!" What really blew me away in the Star Ledger/HoLa love fest was this:
The numbers are striking. Only 11 percent of Hola students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, compared with 72 percent in the city’s traditional public schools, according to state data. Given that poverty remains the most reliable predictor of student performance, Hola has a big head start over district schools. 
But Toback’s response to that is dead wrong. The answer is not to slam the brakes on a successful school. The answer is to lure more poor students to Hola, something Hola is eager to do. “I myself have knocked on doors in public housing asking people if they want information on charters,” says Barbara Martinez, one of the founders.
(emphasis mine)
Does this statement sit poorly with anyone other than me? Are we supposed to be impressed that Barbara Martinez, one of the founders of the charter, has knocked on doors in "public housing?" 

I guess Tom Moran just didn't think to actually research what kind of "official" community outreach HoLa has conducted since they opened in 2010, and instead just bought her convenient line that she's working really hard, ya know, personally, to increase the enrollment of the city's free/reduced lunch kids.

If he had done his homework, he may have found that way back in 2009, before HoLa was approved, Martinez was very vocal, and even back then she was spinning tales about reaching out to the minority community in Hoboken.
“I’ve taken the past two days off of work (I’m a reporter at the WSJ) because the Hola program is so important to my family. Today I spent a lot of time outside Conners and Wallace – getting signatures of people who would be thrilled to send their kids to a dual-language immersion program. 
I met many Hispanic and African-American moms this morning whose faces lit up when I told them their children could be fully literate in two languages by the time they are in third grade. Many are planning to attend our information session this Sunday at Jubilee Center. 
The private school my daughter attends needs to know in early February whether she will be returning in September 2009 for first grade. What am I supposed to tell them?
By the way, they want me to give them $1,000 if I want them to hold her spot. Several weeks after that, I have to commit to a full-year’s tuition. What am I supposed to do?
Sorry to sound so dramatic – but this is really something that will affect my daughter’s future. 
Thank you,
Barbara Martinez (emphasis mine)
Martinez has been talking about her desire to get "Hispanic and African-American moms" interested in HoLa since 2009. Wonder why the demographics are so still so skewed, since Martinez has spent the better part of five years personally trying to increase diversity!

Don't miss the part in that last quote about Martinez being a Wall Street Journal reporter. It's important to point out that she's not just a founder of the school, she's currently the Board Presidentand she's also the "Chief External Officer" for the Charter Management Organization (CMO) Uncommon Schools
Barbara Martinez is the Uncommon Schools Chief External Officer.  Until August, 2011, she was an editor and reporter at The Wall Street Journal, covering various topics, including public schools.
She is a founder and a trustee of the Hoboken Dual Language Charter School, a K-5 school in Hoboken, N.J. Born in Newark, N.J., she graduated from New York University in 1992 with a BA in Journalism. 
What's a Chief External Officer? Basically, it's a very reformy name for a Director of Communications

Uncommon Schools gets a charter in Camden? There's Martinez! 

Uncommon Schools applies for a Renaissance School in Camden? There's Martinez! 

Uncommon Schools wins the Broad Prize? Martinez is on the press release!

So needless to say, Martinez knows her way around education, she knows how to handle the press, and she knows how to pitch a story. And Tom Moran fell for her little spiel about "HoLa's eagerness" to "lure more poor students" hook, line and sinker. 

The Pieces Come Together

It's hard not to notice that the NJDOE has been building a very cozy relationship with Uncommon Schools, and that it couldn't have hurt HoLa's chances of approval to have yet one more connection with Christie's NJDOE.

What an incredible convergence! 

Christie endorsing state democratic leaders, local democratic leaders almost unanimously in favor of HoLa, but all charters in Hoboken, and an influential and well connected Board President with ties to one of the state's favorite CMOs and easy access to the state's largest newspaper, all too eager to explain away the glaring segregation happening in Hoboken.

Viewed through this lens, HoLa's approval was a practically a foregone conclusion.

Hatikvah's Denial

Geez, I'm almost feeling bad for Hatikvah! Seems like the support of a hedge fund demi billionaire just isn't enough anymore!

Hatikvah was opposed by all three legislators in Hatikvah's legislative district:
(East Brunswick) – Senator Peter Barnes, Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan and Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin applauded the Department of Education’s decision to deny the application  for expansion  by Hatikvah International Academy Charter School to include a middle school while allowing the elementary school to remain.    

The legislators stressed that this is an example of the potential divisiveness of imposing Charter Schools on a community without public input and support. It is time to put into law a process to require community approval as a part of the charter school approval process. 
Hatikvah was opposed by the six Superintendent's most impacted by the charter:
Charter regulations clearly state that annually “the Commissioner shall assess the student composition of a charter school and the segregative effect that the loss of the students may have on its district of residence” and that the “annual assessments of student composition of the charter school” will be factored into the renewal of a charter. We respectfully submit that the demographic disparities between our districts and Hatikvah be given significant consideration in your decision. 
We are in absolute agreement that the approval of the Hatikvah expansion would be contrary to N.J.S.A. 18A:36A-­‐16(e)(3), as it would have an overall negative impact on the students, staff, parents, educational programs and finances of our districts. 
Hatikvah was opposed by the community, and an opposition petition garnered over 1,200 signatures.
Commissioner Cerf is the sole decider of whether Hatikvah may expand, forcing our local public schools to turnover additional needed resources to Hatikvah, likely requiring the loss of additional programs and/or staff. Hatikvah cannot be allowed to continue their statewide expansion, to continue to segregate our communities and to continue to usurp scarce district resources.
When viewed from the perspective of what is best for the majority of public school students, there is no justification for this charter school to expand.
Please sign the petition insisting that Commissioner Cerf consider the facts and deny Hatikvah’s request for expansion.
Hatikvah was opposed by the Boards of Education and Town Councils of many of the local districts. (And this list is by no means exhaustive.)

You have to wonder, were the test scores really the driving factor, or was it that outside of those families that attend Hatikvah, there is truly very little support for this or any charter in East Brunswick and the surrounding communities. Afterall, these are communities that value their traditional public schools and have no interest in diverting funds to create a segregatory, dual system.

Bizarro World Charters

As Jersey Jazzman pointed out, both Hatikvah and HoLa seem to be segregating students and causing their districts financial distress, but other than the language immersion/dual language focus, this is where the similarities seem to end.

In Hoboken, the state and local power structure (outside of the district schools) is aligned with the charters, and they have decided that a dual system where charters serve a majority white, affluent population and traditional public schools serve a poor, minority population is just fine

Many local officials, like Mayor Zimmer, avail themselves of the charters for their own children. The charters are what keep folks from fleeing Hoboken for the suburbs, so they must be a good thing, right? 

In East Brunswick, and the surrounding districts that have been drawn into Hatikvah, the state and local power structures (including the district schools) are struggling to maintain a single system that serves all kids, and serves them well. 

HoLa and Hatikvah are kind of bizzaro world charters, if you will. Seemingly similar on the surface, but existing in completely different realms. 

I'm proud to be in one of the districts where we are fighting to maintain a single system and strive to serve all kids. And I stand with the traditional schools of Hoboken that work hard every day to provide the same for their students.


  1. Excellent report! Great research, and great use of the Seinfeld gif!

    It seems like a dual-language Spanish-English school would be a particularly easy sell to low-income Hispanic families and recent Hispanic immigrants, which makes Barbara Martinez's claims of outreach to low-income families all the harder to believe.

    Clearly HoLa has a sophisticated PR machine that they use very skillfully and aggressively to gain political support. If HoLa put a small percentage of that effort into recruiting low-income students, doubtless HoLa's low-income enrollment would be much higher than the paltry 11%, which is outrageously out of sync with the public school low-income rate of 72%.

    1. Schools shouldn't have to work so hard on promoting themselves, but in Hoboken's climate of schools competing, the public schools need a PR machine to broadcast the amazing things going on there, like all the brilliant, highly educated teachers, and for those focused on scores - how many advanced proficient testers there are. (my daughter's small public school fifth grade class had 3 kids get perfect scores on the Math NJ Ask last year)

  2. One reason much easier for politicians in Hoboken to support a charter is that Hoboken's tax rate is extremely low. For Hoboken to have to raise taxes to make up for the inefficiency of multiple school bureaucracies is not going to be onerous like it is elsewhere.

    Hoboken has over $4 million in valuation per student, the highest of any large district in New Jersey and more than double the valuation of Princeton, Millburn, and Paramus. Hoboken also gets a huge amount of state aid (400% of what SFRA recommends) and is the most over aided large district in New Jersey.

    As a consequence of that immense valuation and immense aid stream Hoboken's tax rate is only 0.3915. That means that the owner of a $1 million property would pay less than $4000 a year in school taxes even though Hoboken's school spending is over $21,000 a year per student.

    The bottom line is that people in Hoboken have it good. Very good. It's no wonder they can afford things that the rest of us can't.

  3. Taxes are not low in Hoboken or anywhere in NJ. We shouldn't have taxes raised to fund elite private schools for the few.