Friday, December 9, 2016

Camden Voucher Advocate, Member Of Groups With Ties To Betsy DeVos, Nominated For NJ State Board Of Ed

You've got to hand it to Chris Christie. He'll always keep you on your toes.

As reported in NJ Spotlight yesterday, the Governor announced nominees for long vacant seats on the State Board of Education yesterday, and in a move no one saw coming, he ousted the Board's President, Mark Biedron. John Mooney also noted one particular nomination, and what it may mean.

Christie added to the board well-known Camden activist Angel Cordero. A former mayoral candidate from the city, Cordero a few years ago was among the state’s biggest advocates for private-school vouchers, a topic that may see a revival in Christie’s last year.
A look at Cordero's Twitter account is, well, disturbing. His handle is @Christie_Guy_. The bulk of his tweets fall into three categories; love letters to Christie, hatred for the teachers' union, and more than a few that are just straight up bizarre. 

Here are some representative samples.

Let's start with the straight up bizarre ones to give you a sense of the guy Governor Christie thinks should get to vote on the future of our state's public schools.

From here the bizarre melts into hatred for the teachers' union.

And then there are countless tweets of pure, unadulterated love for the man himself.

Greatest human being he's ever met? A great man with a heart of gold? 82% of New Jersey residents disagree, as Christie's approval level just hit an all time low of 18%.

But back to Cordero. He's on the Board of Delegates of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey. In 2011, during Christie's strongest push for the Opportunity Scholarship Act, then LLANJ President Martin Perez was a strong supporter.
In this post-election period, the Legislature has a chance to make a real difference in the lives of thousands of students shackled to low-performing schools. It’s a chance that leaders genuinely concerned about the future cannot afford to let slip by. The Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) is ready for the final few steps of the legislative process and could be on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk by the end of the month if lawmakers do what they know is right for their constituents.
In 2012 Perez and his wife, Patricia Bombelyn, were behind Vargas v. Camden Board of Education, a lawsuit that sought to free parents from the "failing" schools in Camden and pay them to go to the private school of their choice. 

And Angel was right at their side.
One of those advocates is Patricia Bombelyn, the New Brunswick attorney who led the Crawford case and has been closely aligned with Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), the decade-old group that has largely led the push for private school vouchers in the state. E3 is helping sponsor the challenge.
Her law partner, Martin Perez, was also in attendance. Perez heads up the Latino Leadership Alliance. Also present: Angel Cordero, a Camden activist and former mayoral candidate, and former U.S. Rep. Richard Zimmer, a member of the E3 board. 
So it crystal clear that Cordero has been at the heart of the movement to bring vouchers to NJ, and it is likely that Christie is rewarding him for his allegiance with this seat on the State Board of Education. But Cordero must have some other qualifications, right?


Cordero by darciecimarusti on Scribd

It's hard to know where to start with this resume. The only experience offered, other than his work with the LLANJ and NJ reform heavyweight E3, is the Community Education Resource Network (CERN) and East Side Preparatory High School. I can find no reference to East Side anywhere other than in this Scribd document which was posted by "The CERN Program." Cordero describes his role at East Side as "Co-founder/general stuff."  

How illuminating.


No, certainly not the CERN. Cordero's CERN has been described as an "an alternative school for dropouts" in Camden. And while this is certainly a laudable endeavor, it is clear that Cordero has used the school as a political tool to pass voucher legislation. Cordero wants public money to fund his school when, as seen in this highly produced video of CERN's 2014 graduation (created by NJ Public School Options no less), their graduations are held in a church.

And this article about CERN's 2011 graduation makes it very clear that the ceremony was little more than a political rally (again, at a church) with the Governor himself in attendance.
Politicians urged audience members to call lawmakers, school officials praised the program’s virtues and workers at the door handed out bright yellow T-shirts saying "one failing school is one too many." 
"They said everyone had to wear a shirt," said Charles Washington, 24, of Pennsauken. "You couldn’t get in without a shirt." 
Some of the state’s most powerful people attended the ceremony for the approximately 100 graduates of the Community Education Resource Network, an alternative school for dropouts. It also showcased the alliance — at least when it comes to education — between Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and George Norcross, a Democratic power broker from South Jersey. Both are pushing the scholarship measure, which has stalled in the Legislature despite the support of Democrats and Republicans alike.
Just imagine a public school handing out mandatory t-shirts at graduation, with pleas for attendees to call their legislators to support public education. Something like that might inspire Christie to accuse the teachers' union of using students as drug mules...

Cordero has absolutely zero experience in or around a public school. While his dedication to the people of Camden is commendable, his push for vouchers, and his willingness to use the students and families he serves as pawns in his political game, is highly suspect. 

And his connections to organizations like E3 and LLANJ are deeply troubling.

Betsy DeVos, E3 and LLANJ

How in the world does Betsy DeVos come into this?

Back in 2013 I was concerned about a candidate running for the New Brunswick Board of Education. He too was a voucher supporter, and an ally of Patricia Bombelyn and Martin Perez. When I looked into the money behind these vouchers champions, I found DeVos. 

At the time, I had no idea who she was.

Here's what I wrote in 2013. (Sadly, a bunch of the links no longer work.)


And in case you're thinking Bombelyn and Perez's connections stop at the NJ border, you're wrong. When Bombelyn and Arocho ran on the same ticket, their campaign received a $2,600 donation from the "New Jersey Federation for Children PAC."

Note the address; 1660 L ST, NW STE 1000, Washington DC. This just happens to be the address for the American Federation for Children. Who's behind it? Reformy glitterati such as Betsy DeVos.
...American Federation for Children (AFC), the powerful national network of billionaire campaign contributors that has been pouring millions into school privatization fights across the country.
Organized by Michigan billionaires Dick and Betsy DeVos, Americans for Children is officially nonpartisan. But Dick DeVos is a former Republican nominee for governor of Michigan and Betsy DeVos is a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. Together, they have poured tens of millions of dollars into the ideological and electoral infrastructure that supports school privatization.
“Dick DeVos has used his family’s fortune and status to create an intricate national network of nonprofits, political action committees and federal groups known as 527s that effectively fund the political arm of the school voucher movement,” notes a People for the American Way study of the political projects of the heir to the Amway fortune and his wife. “Nowhere is the impact of the DeVos family fortune greater, though, than in the movement to privatize public education.” 
AFC chair Betsy DeVos has for decades been a high-stakes political player on behalf of school privatization. (emphasis mine)
Great.  Just when I thought I had a handle on all the reformers with their claws into public education in New Jersey, it turns out there's ANOTHER one breathing down our necks.

Other notables behind AFC are "venture capitalist" John F. Kirtley, and investment banker and banking heir Boykin Curry, who is also on the board of Democrats for Education Reform, and a co-founder of a chain of NYC charters called Public Prep.

To bring this full circle, it's important to note that AFC is part and parcel of another entity called Alliance for School Choice, which has identical board members and the same address. Who funds Alliance for School Choice? (As if these folks need more money??)  In 2011 the Walton Foundation gave them $1,202,000.

And here comes the trickle down. 

Between 2006 and 2010 Alliance for School Choice gave $113,500 to none other than Martin Perez's Latino Leadership Alliance. Not surprisingly E3, (remember Perez is on the board) is listed as their only ally in New Jersey.

In turn, the LLA NJ donated $2,700 to Bombelyn and Arocho's campaign.


Angel Cordero may have been nominated for a seat on the New Jersey State Board of Education but he has not yet been confirmed by the Senate (See page 6 in the link for current status of his nomination). He has absolutely no experience in public education, and is clearly hostile to the teachers' union. His appointment by one of the least popular Governor's in New Jersey's history must be challenged. 

Appointments to the State Board of Education are for 6 years, and there are no minimum requirements to serve, other than those that relate to the make-up of the Board as a whole

So left to his own judgement, this is who Governor Christie nominates. But there is a process that must be allowed to unfold. This is a nomination, not an appointment. As noted in the NJ Spotlight piece above:
All the appointments require Senate approval, and the nominations this week only start the process of vetting and interviews before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Nevertheless, it is rare when a nomination to a state board is reversed. 
It may be rare for a nomination to be reversed, but Cordero is an unusual nominee, to be sure. If ever there was a time for the Senate to intervene, this is it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

DeVos Removes Controversial Twitter Photo But Conflict Of Interest Concerns Continue

Late last week I posted about Betsy DeVos's Twitter header photo, which appeared to show Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education shilling boxed water sold by a company in which she had invested. In the post I posited that, like Trump, DeVos may have her own conflicts of interest to grapple with.

At some point this afternoon, the header photo I challenged was taken off of Betsy DeVos's Twitter account. 

Coincidence? I think not. 

Here's the new photo:

Thanks to some clever cropping, this image seems more appropriate, but it still falls pretty far short for a nominee for a cabinet position. 

You see, I checked out DeVos's website, which is plainly linked on her Twitter account. On the website there is a page for contact and media inquiries. There you will find a line that says:
To download photos of Betsy DeVos for editorial purposes, please click here.

So of course I clicked there, and here's what I found.

The uncropped version of the new header photo is titled "Betsy in a Meeting 3". Here is the entire image, with some commentary from yours truly.

And here are "Betsy in a Meeting 1" and "Betsy in a Meeting 2".

The new photo may be less outwardly problematic, but my goodness, really? With her self reported "28 years involved with education issues" her people can't find one photo of her where she's actually doing something related to, oh, I don't know, educating kids?

Where did I find that fascinating tidbit about 28 years in education, you may ask? On the newly updated Q&A page of DeVos's website! On that page you'll also find this:
Q: What are your thoughts about specific education policies?
I am very excited to get to work and to talk about my thoughts and ideas on making American education great again. The status quo is not acceptable. I am committed to transforming our education system into the best in the world. However, out of respect for the United States Senate, it is most appropriate for me to defer expounding on specifics until they begin their confirmation process.  (emphasis mine)
So not only has DeVos updated her header photo, she's updated her website to reflect the fact that she is Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education. Not much to go on here in terms of her thoughts about the job, though. And the only information offered under the "Education" tab is what you'd expect - just a string of school choice buzz words. It's all about "America’s broken education system" and "children trapped by their zip code in a school that failed to meet their needs."

And there's even a blurb about founding the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school. 

But not a positive word to say about traditional public schools. 

Not. A. Word.

Maybe there is a contact email address where I could ask her a question about what she plans to do about all of these pesky public schools people seem to like so much? So much so in fact that, as of this writing, over 77,000 people have contacted their Senators to oppose DeVos's appointment.

Lucky for us, there is contact information! If you have a question for the next Secretary of Education, just get in touch with the Windcrest Group!
Other questions? Email and we’d be happy to help!
To learn more about the Windcrest Group, just click on the "Entrepreneurship" tab on the same website.
Starting in 1989 along with, Dick, Betsy started the Windquest Group, where she serves as Chairman. The Windquest Group invests in a family of companies that provide innovative solutions, services, and products that make the world better.

DeVos may have taken down the super tacky photo of her selling Boxed Water, but clearly she still doesn't get it. It's simply not OK to offer information regarding her nomination and her entrepreneurial enterprises on the same website.

Which brings me back to the same questions I raised in my last post.
Will she divest from her business interests now that she is poised to become a government employee? Or does Trump believe that the "law is on the side" of the Secretary of Education as well, and she can't have a conflict of interest?
If I was right that the photo needed to come down, then it stands to reason that I'm also right that a wall needs to go up between her and her "family of companies". 

But will Trump and DeVos be willing to build walls between themselves and their business empires? If they are, those walls are going to have to be huge.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Betsy DeVos: Conflict of Interest Concerns Arise on Future Secretary's Twitter Account

So it's done.
"Betsy DeVos is a brilliant and passionate education advocate,” Trump said in a statement. “Under her leadership we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families."
When I first heard the news I took to Twitter to check out her account. Here's the first thing I noticed. 

Let's play a little game for a moment to try and lighten the mood. Did you catch the missing word in that tweet? The missing word is public. Our new Secretary of Education can't bring herself to utter the word public in the same sentence as education while announcing that she will soon oversee the education of 50 million American students in public schools.

Here's what I noticed next. Her header photo.

At  first glance this just looks like a lovely photo of DeVos in conversation with a student. But huh, isn't it a little odd that there is a carton in front of each of them? And not just any carton, a carton of water. That's not something you see everyday.

It looks like a product placement, doesn't it? But nah, she's savvy enough to keep any products her family business may be associated with far away from the Twitter account where she's tweeting about her appointment, right? She can't be involved in that company, that would look like a conflict of interest! 

So let's just get on with our story.

DeVos is from Michigan. Betsy and her husband, Dick, have funded countless Republican candidates in Michigan, going back to the 1990s.
Nowhere has the family made its presence felt as it has in Michigan, where it has given more than $44 million to the state party, GOP legislative committees, and Republican candidates since 1997. "It's been a generational commitment," Anuzis notes. "I can't start to even think of who would've filled the void without the DeVoses there."
Governor Rick Snyder has been the recipient of the DeVos family's largesse.
Employees of Blue Cross/Blue Shield are the biggest funding source for the governor so far, having donated $112,131. Fifteen members of the DeVos family have contributed $85,600. They are followed by employees of CMS Energy, $82,975, and DTE Energy, $75,800.
The DeVos family uses their money and influence for any number of vile endeavors; vouchers, right-to-work laws, anti-gay marriage efforts, etc. But school choice is Betsy Devos' bread and butter.
But they are perhaps most ardent about their support for school choice, leading a movement to promote vouchers and charter schools for years.

Betsy DeVos founded and serves as chairman of the American Federation of Children and its associated political arm, a platform she has used to support candidates who endorse vouchers and charter schools and to attack candidates who don’t.
The DeVos clan has a ton of money (5.1 billion to be exact) from multiple business interests, and they use it to bust unions, privatize schools and deny rights to gay Americans.

Here's a quick peek at some of the family's business, political and foundation connections from Muckety.

Whew, nothing about a boxed water business, so my earlier suspicions must be unfounded. 

But I just can't shake the feeling that something is off about those water cartons being in the photo. Like it's more of an advertisement than a snapshot of an educational leader engaging in a genuine moment with a student. 

So I looked up the company.
We started with the simple idea of creating a packaged water brand that is kinder to the environment and gives back.
We focused on purity and sustainability, delivering our first carton to our favorite lunch spot in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2009. Since then, we’ve continued to spread our message of healthy and thoughtful living, one box at a time.
Huh, they started in Michigan. DeVos is from Michigan. So maybe the boxes are in the photo just because this is a nice, local brand! 

A do-gooder local company must have pitched in to help with the Flint water crisis, right? This is from a press release from the company.
"We feel for the local community and those impacted by the Flint water crisis, and as a Michigan based water company, we strongly believe it's our responsibility to help the community during this time," commented David Lee, Chief Operating Officer for Boxed Water. "We encourage everyone involved to continue donations and continue volunteering time and energy to raise awareness for this issue and to help those in need during this time."
A little tacky to send out a press release about your good works, but okay, I still want to buy the do-gooder routine.

Until I search for "Boxed Water is Better" and "Betsy DeVos", just because in my heart of hearts, I really am deeply cynical. I just can't help it.

And what did I find?

Founded in 2009, Boxed Water is a portfolio company of DeVos family office The Windquest Group.
Boxed Water is just one of many ventures that are a part of The Windcrest Group, which is described on their website as a "privately held enterprise and investment management firm with diversified projects in technology, manufacturing, clean-tech, hospitality, and nonprofit solutions."

And Betsty DeVos is the Chairwoman of the Windcrest Group.

So wait a minute. Let's skip past the whole "I knew it!" part and unpack this a bit. 

A water company the DeVos family has invested in donated water to the people of Flint, and touted the donation via a press release in February of 2016. This was just a month before a panel, commissioned by the governor, concluded that that same governor (who, remember, the DeVos family helped put in office with almost $100,000 in campaign contributions) and other state officials were "fundamentally accountable" for the lead that poisoned the people of Flint. 
The Flint water crisis is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice,” said Chris Kolb, a co-chairman of the task force and president of Michigan Environmental Council, a nonprofit coalition of environmental groups in the state.(emphasis mine)
A story of government failure. Let that just sink in for just a moment. 

How opportunistic is if for a business funded by the DeVos family to send out a press release about donating boxed water to Flint, when their 44 million dollars in campaign contributions helped elect Republican legislators that have failed the people of Flint for decades? 

Disaster capitalism at its finest.

Hard not to draw comparisons to DeVos and her penchant for privatization and school choice, isn't it?

Wreck the public schools by underfunding them and busting their unions, and then offer the desperate masses for-profit charters and vouchers to private schools!

And as it so happens, one of the many "enterprises" that is listed as part of The Windcrest Group portfolio, right on the same page as the Boxed Water company, is the charter school started by DeVos' husband, the West Michigan Aviation Academy.

Because to people like Trump and DeVos, a school is just another business.

So here is the big question - at a time when questions swirl around the Trump family's business empire and the unavoidable conflicts of interest, what about DeVos? In how many businesses does the DeVos family have an interest, and how many of those businesses could potentially benefit from her new position?

After all, if she's not above using her official Twitter account to shill boxed water sold by a company she has invested in, what other products might her family sell that could lead to conflicts in her new role as a government official? 

Will she divest from her business interests now that she is poised to become a government employee? Or does Trump believe that the "law is on the side" of the Secretary of Education as well, and she can't have a conflict of interest?

Can she shill boxed water that pays her dividends on her Twitter account, President Trump? 

Are you OK with that?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Guest Post: Who Chooses Charters in New Jersey?

The following is a guest post from four incredible public school activists from Montclair, New Jersey; Lynn Fedele, Michelle Fine, Christine McGoey and Regina Tuma. They are members of the community group Montclair Cares About Schools, also know as MCAS. MCAS has inspired dozens of similar "Cares" groups across New Jersey, including one here in Highland Park.
MCAS is now actively involved in working to inform the public not only about the problems with the application for a French Immersion charter in Montclair, but how their experience illustrates major flaws in the state's charter school program.
My hat is off to them for their tireless advocacy work on behalf of all children.

In late March, 2016, public school parents in Montclair, NJ were informed that an application for a French language immersion charter school had been submitted to the New Jersey Department of Education. While the Montclair Board of Education, Town Council and citizen groups quickly objected through letters and calls to the state, the application was approved to move to the second phase. 
Now people in Montclair are learning what their neighbors in places like Newark and Paterson already know: when it comes to charter schools, local communities have no choice. 

Who Chooses Charters? 

NJ Charter School law puts the decision to grant charter applications solely in the hands of the Commissioner of Education, after review by the charter division. The charter division may take into account community opposition, but communities have no right to make their own decisions about whether charter schools are right for them. 
Communities are forced to pay for charter schools, draining dollars for local public schools, even when there is no support or need for them. Adding insult to injury, once the public school dollars are turned over, charter schools have absolutely no accountability to the district tax payers who supply them; no requirements for transparency and no evidence of equity. A charter school can take and take from the local community but does not have to answer to it. 
The Fulbright / Montclair Charter School Application is a prime example of how these glaring inequities in NJ Charter law can hold local school districts hostage to educationally unsupportable and unnecessary charter schools overwhelmingly opposed by the community. 
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Brian Murray, a spokesman for the governor, called the NJ charter approval process "rigorous" and asserted that:  

This administration will encourage successful charter-school programs wherever the state Department of Education deems appropriate and whenever they can effectively provide parents with an alternative to a failing public school.

In the first instance, communities who are paying for these schools are denied choice, and tax levy dollars are re-routed into corporate hands. Second, even according to Murray’s criteria, the Montclair charter application should have been denied in Phase One. There is no credible way to label Montclair's schools as failing. How then, could a "rigorous process" have allowed the application pass to Phase Two? Under what criteria and by whose judgement did the application move to this second phase? 
Nobody outside a select few at the NJ DOE knows, because the so-called "rigorous" process is not transparent to democratic, public scrutiny. 
OPRA requests were met with NJ DOE reply that:

The Department does not make or maintain records responsive. 

The NJ DOE has only produced heavily redacted invoices for a charter consultant from New York. If indeed the NJ DOE keeps no records of charter application feedback, this is a change in policy, as the state used to provide feedback to applicants on a rubric that was available for public scrutiny through an OPRA request. Apparently, this is no longer the case.  Again we ask, who chooses charters?
The problems inherent in this lack of public transparency from the state are compounded in the face of the strong local opposition to the proposed charter. 

The Opposition

To start, the Montclair Board of Education and Superintendent Ronald Bolandi have opposed the charter on numerous educational grounds. In a letter to state commissioner David Hespe, they state:

Montclair is a racially and economically diverse community, characteristics about which its residents take a great deal of pride… Approval of a charter school will undermine the student diversity for which Montclair is so rightly proud. The application spends a lot of space discussing the achievement gap, but points to no evidence-based method for assuring a diverse student body and runs the risk of further segregating Montclair schools.

Charter review is required to attend to fiscal and segregative impacts.  
In addition to town officials, a group of college professors have analyzed the application, declaring it a pedagogically unsound hodge-podge of immersion, STEAM, and STEM. They note that Montclair operates under a court desegregation order, but the application asserts the school will be modeled on and recruit in the same ways as Hoboken’s HoLa charter--currently the subject of a lawsuit for increasing segregation.
Their letter delineates a series of concerns, rooted in Charter law: 
…the financial consequences of a charter school in Montclair will drain monies from the already theme-based magnet schools.  In addition, we have thoroughly reviewed and are well-versed on the literature regarding the pros and cons of charter schools in general and their adverse impact on curricular offerings and loss of supports for low income students in the host community. In Montclair we care deeply about equity and the needs of struggling students. The Charter would undermine both.

Many have noted the obvious lack of experience in the founders, and questionable judgement in selection of proposed principal. The applicants--a hedge fund employee and former fashion industry employee--have no background in education. The named principal for the school has been accused of financial mismanagement, when she reportedly "spent like a kid in a candy store" on doughnuts and lunches while running a NY charter. 
Even the local police have voiced concerns. The proposed site for the Montclair charter has been the recent subject of a town health and safety meeting where  everyone from the emergency manager to the police lieutenant in charge of traffic and the fire chief have found the site unsuitable. It is no surprise that Montclair has come out united and in force against this charter application 
The Montclair BOE, Mayor R. Jackson, the Town Counsel, the local NAACP, PTA, Montclair Cares About Schools, Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, the Montclair 250, the Montclair Civil Rights Commission, Montclair Kids First, The Montclair Times, The Montclair Community Pre-K, Montclair Residents Opposed to Fulbright/Montclair Charter, and individual citizens have all registered written opposition with the state, supported by Montclair's State Senator Nia Gill, and Assemblyman Thomas Giblin and Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver. 
Aware of the ability of charters to draw from neighboring towns, Glen Ridge, and Bloomfield Boards of Education are opposing the charter as well as parent groups from Verona and South-Orange Maplewood. And thousands of individual parents and community members have sent letters of opposition.
For some of these same reasons, and because charter schools are speeding up the rapid racial re-segregation of schools and over-disciplining of African American children across the US, Journey for Justice, the Movement for Black Lives (a coalition of 50 groups organized by Black Lives Matter), and the national NAACP have initiated a call for a moratorium on charters, and have been recently joined in the by the Democratic Party in MA. 
Charter applications and applicants should not be favored under law over the local districts and citizens who have to support them. That the state continues to consider the approval of a pedagogically unsound charter school that local tax dollars would have to fund, despite public opposition and in a hidden procedure that includes no democratic processes for local taxpayers and citizens, reveals just how flawed the system for charter school approval is in the state of New Jersey. 
In a town known for rich debate, dissent, and dialogue, Montclair has surprisingly spoken in a single voice: We reject this charter. This unified opposition then begs the question: How can charter schools present any choice when the community has no voice and the state has no transparency or accountability to the public it is supposed to serve?

The Montclair Board of Education is holding a rally to celebrate the Montclair Public Schools and to protest the proposed charter on Wednesday, September 14th at the Montclair High School Ampitheater from 4:30 to 6:00 pm. State Senator Nia Gill will be the Keynote Speaker with expected political representatives to be in attendance including State Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, State Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, Freeholder Brendan Gill, Mayor Robert Jackson, Montclair Town Council and others.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

NJ Charter Expansion Once Again On The Rise

It would appear that Chris Christie's NJDOE is up to their old tricks again. 

NJCSA's Nicole Cole with Christie at
Bergen Arts and Science Charter School
Governor Christie has been prancing around the state, meeting with charter parents (see here, here, here and here), and New Jersey Charter Schools Association staff (see photo), boldly proclaiming that before he leaves office he will all but completely deregulate charter schools. He even delivered the keynote address at the New Jersey Charter Schools Association conference where he took more than a couple of predictable swipes at the NJEA.

In a speech Thursday at the New Jersey Charter School's Conference in Atlantic City, Christie said teachers unions are stealing from children and taxpayers while charter schools are doing "God's work." 
"Their philosophy is that every one of their jobs, every one of their perks is more important than changing the system that they know is failing," Christie said of teachers unions.
Charter schools, where teachers are not unionized and last-in-first-out policies do not apply, are more focused on students, Christie told a crowd of hundreds of charter school teacher (sic) and administrators. 
As Christie travels the state cozying up to the charter sector, and bashing traditional public schools, I've noticed that the charter application process has once again become a three ring circus.  

Yesterday it was announced that nine out of twenty four charter applications were advanced to Phase 2 of the state's March 2016 charter application round. That announcement came over three weeks late, according the the NJDOE's own timeline for the application process. 

But more on that later.

In the previous round of charter applications, announced in February of this year, Commissioner Hespe approved three new charters and sixteen expansion requests. A Christie Administration press release boasted that the 2016-2017 school year would see a 10% increase in charter seats across the state. No word of course as to how districts would pay for those seats, just this bold proclamation from Commissioner Hespe.
Expanding the number of charter schools and seats available ensures that students and parents, especially in our academically struggling districts, have more options to achieve success.
No mention that cities like Newark, Paterson and Camden are struggling to fund their traditional public schools as the state opens an endless stream of charter seats, siphoning more students out of neighborhood schools and more dollars out of the district's budget.  

No mention of the fact that the state capped the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which they must pay for, because, in Hespe's own words, the program became unsustainable.
“It’s fiscally unsustainable,” state Education Commissioner David Hespe said in an interview. “The program has increased fivefold. The cost has increased fivefold.”
Instead of actually stopping out of control charter growth in the hardest hit cities, the NJDOE feigns restraint in their charter school program by adding lines like this one to their press release.
There are currently 89 charter schools in New Jersey. Since 2010, 39 new charter schools have opened and the Department has closed 17 due to academic, operational or financial deficiencies.
But take a look at this chart I prepared for a presentation I gave in Montclair, a town now forced to continue to mount a defense against a charter application that has made it to Phase 2.

Now keep in mind, this chart only represents new charter approvals - this does not include the expansions that have been approved. As I mentioned above, in the last round only 3 new charters were approved but sixteen were given the go ahead to expand. This resulted in a 10% increase in the number of charter seats in one school year. 

This kind of sudden increase is reminiscent of 2010, when Christie first took office and attempted to radically grow the number of charter seats in New Jersey. He was met with fierce opposition across the state, not only from parents, but from legislators such as Senator Nia Gill who demanded transparency in the approval process as Christie's administration handed out charters as political favors. As the chart above demonstrates, when they were challenged, the number of charter applications and approvals significantly slowed.

It is time for parents and legislators to stand up and demand that same transparency once again.

Allow me to provide an example of the nonsense currently being perpetrated by the NJDOE. 

Here is a screen shot of the March Application Timeline, as it appeared on the Office of Charter Schools website on May 13th, four days before the Phase I decisions were to be announced.

And here is what it looks like today.

Not only does this appear to be a cover for the fact that, as I mentioned previously, the NJDOE was three weeks out of timeline with yesterday's announcement. This also means that with this new scaled back timeline, districts and communities have no idea when they will receive the Phase 2 applications and no idea how long they will be given to prepare their responses to those applications.

No doubt the applicants have been told the submission date for Phase 2 applications, but districts and communities, as usual, are left in the dark. This is just par for the course when a charter school is trying to open in a town. The deck is stacked against the traditional school district, as the state woos and holds the hands of charter applicants and operators.

It is time for the people of this state and their elected representatives in Trenton to once again call the NJDOE out on these shenanigans. Chris Christie's NJDOE makes up their own rules as they go along, and our governor has been very clear that he intends to drastically increase seats while he simultaneously deregulates the charter sector. 

While the New Jersey Charter Schools Association stands behind Christie (much as Christie stands behind Trump), just waiting for their reward, it is incumbent upon the rest of us to ensure that his reckless deregulation plans are thwarted. 

Keep in mind, with the lax regulations currently in place, this administration has had to close seventeen charters for "academic, operational or financial deficiencies." That is an unnecessary and unproductive disruption of the education of thousands of students. How many more children will be put in the care of incompetent charter operators should Christie get his way?

We must demand transparency in the application process, both for new applications, and for expansions. 

Christie's aggressive charter growth and deregulation agenda is poison. 

Sunlight is the best antidote