TRENTON, NJ - When he was a student attending the College of New Jersey in the late 80s and early 90s, Dexter Williams would frequently pass the State House in Trenton on his way from the train station to campus.
"I never stopped in, not once," the Newark resident said.
But that changed today when he joined hundreds of other parents from Newark, Paterson, Camden, Jersey City and other communities to work the hallways of the State House complex and lobby lawmakers in support of charter schools.
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Williams and the parents met early in the morning at the Old Masonic Temple, where they heard from Sen. Tom Kean Jr., a Republican from Westfield, and Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin, a Democrat from Newark.
"It's important for you to get involved," Kean told the parents. "It's important to start today and work every day. Please get involved, please continue."
The parents wasted no time taking Kean's words to heart, making their way across Barrack Street to the State House in groups of a dozen or more and fanning out throughout the complex to committee hearings in search of lawmakers to share stories how charter schools have helped their children.
One group of parents from Uncommon Schools' North Star Academy and KIPP New Jersey met up with Sen. Ronald Rice, a Democrat from Newark, in the lobby of the State House Annex, where he was headed to the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee.
Rice, who is the vice chair of the committee, spent about 20 minutes talking to the group before an aide told him he was holding up the start of the committee hearing.
Williams, who was among the group that met with Rice, said he appreciated that the senator took so much time to talk to parents. His takeaway from the conversation was that parents of both charter and district schools need to join together to advocate to increase funding for public schools.
"As a parent who has a child in a charter school, I never viewed it as us against them," said Williams, who has a daughter at KIPP New Jersey's Thrive Academy and two other daughters who graduated from KIPP's high school. "We're not the enemy."
But Crystal Williams, who has three children attending North Star Academy, said she felt Rice "flip flops back and forth."
"You never can get a gage of where he is really at and when he keeps going back to the funding formula it's just to throw us off," Crystal Williams said. "The bottom line is I'm a parent, I have a right to send my child to whichever school I choose, and that money belongs to my child."
Manny Martinez, a commissioner on the Paterson Board of Education as well as the director of Community Schools at Community Charter School of Paterson, met with Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, a Democrat representing Paterson, along with a group of parents from Paterson and other communities.
"The message to our legislators is that charter schools and district schools can co-exist," said Martinez. "There's a misconception that charters are private or bad, and we are here to debunk that."
His charter school started a music program with the Paterson district and now students from both district schools as well as the charter school perform together in the same orchestra to hundreds of parents from both types of public schools in Paterson.
Among the other lawmakers parents met with were Assemblymen Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), Arthur Barclay (D-Camden), Andrew Zwicker (D-Skillman), Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton), Joseph Lagana (D-Paramus), Assemblywomen Angela McKnight (D-Jersey City), Mila Jasey (D-Maplewood), Annette Chaparro (D-Hoboken), Joann Downey (D-Ocean), Pamela Lampitt (D-Voorhees), Marlene Caride (D-Ridgefield) and Sens. Nick Sacco (D-North Bergen), Joseph Pennachio (R-Montville) and Robert Singer (R-Lakewood), .
While many of the state's charter schools are located in urban areas represented by Democrats, lawmakers from the party have not always been supportive of charter schools.
In the last legislative session, Jasey and two other Democratic lawmakers, Ralph Caputo of Belleville and Patrick Diegnan of South Plainfield, sponsored a bill imposing a three-year moratorium on increases in charter school enrollment. The same bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Shirley Turner, a Democrat representing Trenton.
Though the bills never made it out of the Assembly and Senate education committees, the effort to impose a moratorium galvanized the charter school community into action.
"It's important that we continue to make our voices heard today and that we continue to engage our elected officials to let them know that there's a face to our charter school movement," said Altorice Frazier, a parent leader whose children attend KIPP. "At the end of the day, it's about our children."
As parent demand for charter school seats have grown, charter schools have come under increasing fire in recent years from a variety of groups around the state. The New Jersey Education Association, which represents most of the state's teachers, has called for a charter school moratorium, arguing that charter schools are siphoning away from traditional public schools.
An organization known as the Latino Coalition has also filed a series of civil rights complaints against a number of charter schools around the state, claiming they segregate, a charge the charters vigorously dispute.
McKnight, who spoke at lunch, was asked whether she supported a charter moratorium. "Every time we try to stop something without a backup plan, it's not a good idea," said McKnight, who is on the Assembly Education Committee. "I don't support a moratorium."
Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, a Democrat from Voorhees, told parents that he supports charter schools because they provide parents an opportunity.
"I know that education is not equal in every part of our state," Greenwald said. "I represent communities where families are prisoners of poverty because of the inaffordability of housing in this state. They can't move from Camden to Cherry Hill the way my parents did. They can't move from Newark to Livingston or Short Hills. We need to create opportunities. The reason why I supported charter schools years ago was because they offer opportunity to families and children across this state."