MONTCLAIR, NJ - What impact does charter school education have on public school districts? A panel of experts gathered in Montclair on Saturday to discuss.

In a nutshell, most of the viewpoints expressed pointed toward charter schools being not only detrimental to the public school system, but also not serving of the children in most need, as well as a resource drain and a promoter of segregation. Many of the allegations were backed by research presented in a slide presentation by Mark Weber.

Moderated by Michelle Fine, co-author of “Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education,” the panel of experts included Darcie Cimarusti, President, Highland Park BOE; Liz Mulholland, also known as blogger “Mother Crusader “; Sharon Smith, former Special Education teacher and advocate, Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSE); and Mark Weber, Teacher, Researcher, blogger known as “Jersey Jazzman,” joined to discuss the impact charter schools have on public education.

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Among the large number of attendees were Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson, Councilman Sean Spiller, Gayle Shepard, president of the Montclair Education Association, Anne Mernin who is VP of the Montclair Board of Education, former Montclair school board member David Cummings, Al Pelham of the Montclair NAACP, Newark native actor John Amos, and education activist and Paterson teacher Stan Karp.

Citizens representing Roxbury, Montclair, Bloomfield, Newark, Clifton, Maplewood, South Orange, Morristown, and more, joined on a beautiful May afternoon to sit indoors and attend the presentation.

Some background was given on how charters began with the intent to promote education for families whose needs were not being served, and initially involved parents and teachers. However, what may have started as a social justice issue eventually got taken over by what panelists coined as 'corporate mandates', making this a for-profit endeavor that they felt does not necessarily serve the public needs.

Cimarusti started by pointing out how Arne Duncan, who was U.S. Secretary of Education from 2009-2016, provided grants and how Chris Christie has played a significant role in moving his charter agenda forward, as evidenced in his State of the State speech. One of Cimarusti’s strong suggestions was to persist in demanding transparency.

She said, “Go back to Senator Nia Gill” referring to Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) who filed the request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Cimarusti said often times the state department is deciding approval or denial of charter applications without community involvement. She also warned that neighboring districts can be impacted and should be included in conversations since many times a charter will reach out to families form neighboring towns, further drawing on resources without offering a reciprocal benefit.

Weber provided slides that painted a not so favorable accountability picture of the charter scenario. His research depicted how special needs students can fall into 12 categories that correspond to needed levels of care. Charters tend to take students with a lower cost special need, and leave ones with higher cost needs to the district. However, they receive the same amount of money for a special need student.

He demonstrated through numbers that certain charters “take more white students…fewer special education students…” and when he showed a linear regression adjusting for student characteristics, the data suggested that the charter schools, on many occasions were still not providing higher educational outcomes.

He suggested the communities ask themselves, “What are you getting for the price?” In many examples presented, it seemed there was actually no justification for having a charter school. One such example was Red Bank, NJ.

In recent weeks in Montclair, after NJ Commissioner of Education David Hespe approved an application for a charter school last month, the decision was met with rebuke from Interim Schools Superintendent Ronald Bolandi and the Montclair Board of Education. In addition, parents who have expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision for a charter school to open in Montclair have been encouraged to write letters the Hespe.

Liz Mulholland likewise painted a very grim picture of how the charters affected schools in Hoboken. She specifically referenced HoLa (The Hoboken Dual Language Charter School). She stated some comparative 2010 demographics such as their 11% free lunch, and 0.05% special education at the charter, versus 69% free lunch and 17% special education for the public system.

She quoted the superintendent’s letter that said, “It’s hard to believe 40 years after a civil rights movement, I would be writing about the need to integrate the public schools. The charter school populations do not reflect the overall diversity and immediate intervention is needed from the NJTO.”

Finally, Sharon Smith President of Parents United spoke of the Newark experience. She referenced how Newark schools squandered Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation. She spoke of Newark’s large African American and Latino community and said the government allowed a "destructive policy" into the city as a test to use the prototype in Newark to implement in other cities.

She said, “Most of the money (Zuckerberg’s) went to the charter schools and a small percentage went to the public school but only for innovative work, which was code for TFA teachers and other things like that. Some of the money went toward the teacher’s union.”

Smith told the audience that after the first charter schools were announced, a complaint was filed with the office of civil rights.

According to Smith, high needs students were collocated and ultimately homeless children couldn’t find a way to get to schools at remote locations. It was suggested the parents carpool, which showed a complete disconnect from the community, who did not have cars. Smith referenced white privilege, discriminatory practices, and said a second complaint was filed also with the Justice Department.

In Smith’s opinion the One Newark plan was destroying the community because special needs students were not receiving needed services, the academic transition from one school to another was not working well not only on transportation but she added that this was happening also on many other levels.

Tap into Montclair spoke to an audience member named Jennifer who said she attends many related events. As a teacher in Jersey City she said, “We see a lot of nonsense going on. Kids are losing out in the public schools. Problems aren’t being addressed. The public is made to feel we need a new school.” 

When asked if charter schools could help improve instruction and close the education gap she commented, “The thing with the charter schools is they weed out kids, and basically only take ones who test in.”