A NJ Senate bill pending in the lame duck legislative session would allow the State-operated Camden district to turn over operation of most, if not all, of its enrollment and schools to three out-of-state charter groups: New York-based KIPP and Uncommon and Philadelphia-based Mastery charter networks.
Under special legislation enacted in 2011, the Camden school district has approved the operation of 12 elementary, middle and high schools by KIPP, Uncommon and Mastery, closing several district schools in the process. Under the law, the three charter chains have also secured pre-approval from the NJ Department of Education and the Camden district to enroll over 9,000 Camden students, or more than 60 % of Camden’s total enrollment, and open 16 additional schools.
The NJ Senate bill would amend the existing law by expanding the scope of the geographical area in Camden where KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon can expand from specific Camden neighborhoods to the entire city.
Another amendment in the bill would eliminate the requirement that the charter chains can open schools only in new or substantially reconstructed buildings financed by the charters themselves. Instead, they would be allowed to expand to any building newly constructed or renovated in the last five years, including district schools. This opens the door to the takeover of buildings with improvements financed by the NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA) under the court-ordered Abbott v. Burke school construction program.
The SDA has approved the demolition of Camden High School and has authorized construction of a new, $130 million Camden High for the district.
In a January 5 statement prepared for the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Education Law Center urged lawmakers to reject the Senate bill, expressing serious concerns including a potential turnover of the new Camden High to either KIPP, Uncommon or Mastery.
“The Senate bill will permit the State-operated Camden district to transfer, after construction by the SDA, the new Camden High School to either the KIPP, Uncommon or Mastery charter chains,” David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director and counsel to Camden school children in the landmark Abbott litigation, wrote in ELC’s testimony. “It would be a flagrant fraud upon the Abbott court rulings, the Abbott school construction program, the SDA, and NJ taxpayers if the SDA builds Camden High as a district public school, only to have the district then hand the brand new facility over to a non-public, private entity.”
ELC also opposes the bill because the amendments, taken together, would delegate to KIPP, Uncommon and Mastery the authority to serve the vast majority of Camden students, fueling the Camden district to close even more schools.
“This bill green-lights the State-operated Camden district to close not just a few, but all or most district-operated schools, and then consign all or the vast majority of Camden students to attend a KIPP, Uncommon or Mastery-run school,” Mr. Sciarra added in the testimony. “The bill delegates the authority and responsibility for the education of most, if not all, Camden school children to three private charter chains, with scant accountability to Camden parents, residents, voters and taxpayers.”
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