Trenton, NJ—More than 500 charter school parents, educators and advocates from across the state gathered at the Statehouse in Trenton Monday for a CharterStrong Parent Action Day rally to celebrate New Jersey’s 50,000 public charter school children and to raise awareness of the more than 35,000 children that remain on charter school waiting lists.
Organized by a coalition of parents, schools and advocacy organizations including Better Education for Kids (B4KNJKids), the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, JerseyCAN and the Newark Charter School Fund (NCSF), the initiative, now in its third year, was also a way to highlight the contributions of charters throughout the state.
Holding signs and wearing #CharterStrong t-shirts as a student drum line led the group for a short march from the War Memorial to the State Street outside the Statehouse which is undergoing renovations, charter advocates from Newark, Paterson, New Brunswick, Plainfield, Camden, Trenton, Jersey City, Hackensack, Elizabeth, Hoboken and Atlantic City, among others, applauded the many elected officials from across the state who came out to show support for New Jersey's 89 charter schools.
“There are 50,000 kids in charter schools for a reason,” State Senate President Steve Sweeney said at the rally. “We shouldn’t have 35,000 kids on waiting lists. “I want you all to know I'm with you not 100 percent—but 1,000 percent."
State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, who gave a special shout-out to Newark, noted the need for elected officials to listen to their constituents.
“I’m here to listen to the parents because that’s our job as lawmakers,” said Ruiz, the chair of the Senate Education Committee. “I’m here to support you. We must listen to parents who want a different pathway for their kids. The government must step up to the plate and provide choices.”
Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington County) said he and his brother attended schools of choice "before it became cool to be in charter schools."
"It's not about which education system is better than the other," Singleton said. "It's about making them all better. Together we can make this happen."
Other elected officials in attendance include Sen. Declan O'Scanlon (R-Monmouth) and Assembly Education Committee Chair Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) and Assembly Budget Committee Chair Eliana Pintor (D-Newark) and Deputy Speaker Gary Schaer (D-Passaic).
Crystal Williams, whose son attends Uncommon Schools North Star Academy in Newark, said she is grateful the charter school has helped her son, who is diagnosed with ADHD, a learning disorder that affects a child's attention, ability to sit still, and self-control.
"Jayson is the child that charter critics say does not exist in charter schools. He gives his teachers a hard time-a really hard time," said Williams, who spoke from the podium. "My son Jason has many challenges but he’s thriving. He made honor roll. And because he’s thriving, he’s going to college."
Altorice Frazier, a Newark charter parent and advocate and one of the organizers of the event, said the rally was held to bring attention to the growing charter movement and the work that still needs to be done.
“We want our new governor to know that we’re supporting charters and that we are parents who really support this side of education,” he said, noting New Jersey’s 30,000 students on charter school waiting lists. “I’ve been blessed to be a parent in this space and to make sure we have a platform. This is an amazing synergy of energy coming together. It’s an opportunity to show our legislators and policy makers that we are parents who have chosen this kind of education because it’s innovative.”
Verndrey Elliott, whose four children also attended North Star Academy, said she was in the state's capital to advocate for charters and to be a voice in the ongoing district-charter debate.
“I’m proud of where we’re going right now, but I’m still concerned about some of the myths going around,” she said, noting a divide that still exists among some district and charter parents. “Charters have raised the bar for other schools. We need district schools to be more competitive. We still have parents that need more options.”
Chief Academic Director at Plainfield's Queen City Academy Charter School Danielle West, who spoke at the rally, referred to herself as a "product of choice."
"Fast forward 20 years and here we have strong charter options before us--options of quality," West said.
Ashley Campbell, a charter advocate who sends her daughter to Philip’s Academy Charter School in Paterson, believes that charter schools offer more choices.
“I’m an advocate for my daughter,” she said. “She is what makes me do this. I want her to have the best opportunities. Charters are essential to my daughter’s future.”
Campbell looks to Newark as a model for her mission of uniting Paterson district and charter parents.
“Newark brings their charter and public schools together and I’m trying to do that in Paterson,” she said, noting that many parents in Paterson are unaware of the city's five charter schools as an option. “I’m trying to be an advocate and a voice for the parents.”
Charter school teacher Justine Thimmel, who teaches fourth and fifth grades at Paterson Arts and Science Charter School, was proudly marching among parents and educators, noting her support of the charter mission of educational excellence.
“I’m here advocating for my kids,” she said. “This is a great cause. We’re all coming together to support our kids.”
Newark Charter School Fund Executive Director Michele Mason said the initiative was an opportunity for families to share their stories about the positive impact public charter schools are having for the 50,000 students across the state, including more than 17,000 Newark students, each year.
“Supporting school choice options like charters is key to ensuring quality educational opportunities continue for all of our current students and grow to meet the needs of future generations,” Mason said. “Our goal for all public schools—charter and district—is the same: to provide a high-quality education that meets the needs of all the children they serve.”
Mason cited recent studies out of Newark that have shown the positive impact charter schools have made in the district.
“Charters help all public schools thrive by providing diverse, innovative options for families by raising average student achievement across the city,” she said. “Therefore, it is essential that full resources follow the child to the public school of their choice. We applaud the Governor’s recent budget proposal that gets us closer to this, but more work is needed to ensure full equity for charter and district students. CharterStrong Parent Action Day is a message to legislators that parents should have the power to choose the best school option for their child and they need to support them in their effort.”
Murphy’s recent budget proposal, which includes a new tax rate of 10.75 percent on incomes over $1 million, would serve to boost funding to schools.
B4NJKids Executive Director Shelley Skinner said the support of policymakers is crucial for charters.
“We are committed to making sure every family in New Jersey can access high-quality schools for their children," Skinner said. “In our view, many public charter schools have been providing to achieve that mission. Regretfully, charter schools are often politicized, but the choices our families are making every day are not political ones. They're simply trying to set their children on a path to success in a safe, dynamic learning environment. We hope that decision-makers will see that any changes in charter policy have real, direct impacts on families in these communities and that families are empowered and want to be a part of the conversation.”
New Jersey was the 25th state to enact charter school legislation since the New Jersey Charter School Program Act was passed and signed into law in 1995 under former Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, with the state’s first charter schools opening in 1997.
Charter schools are public schools that operate as their own Local Education Agencies (LEA) under a charter granted by the state’s education commissioner, with the New Jersey Department of Education acting as the sole charter school authorizer in New Jersey.