On July 7, NJ Education Commissioner David Hespe authorized Uncommon Charter Schools, based in New York City, to open five schools in Camden serving 2,260 students in kindergarten through grade 12. On the same day, the Commissioner approved plans by the Philadelphia-based Mastery charter chain to open six schools serving 4,654 K-12 Camden students.
In 2013, then Commissioner Chris Cerf approved a proposal by the New York City-based KIPP charter chain to open five Camden schools serving 2,300 K-12 students.
In the course of one year, and with virtually no public input, Governor Chris Christie’s administration has authorized three charter chains – Uncommon, KIPP and Mastery – to open 16 schools serving a total of 9,214 Camden students. In 2013-14, Camden had a total K-12 enrollment of 15,000 students, with 11,000 in 26 public neighborhood and magnet schools and 4,000 in 11 existing charter schools.
Governor Christie has now authorized three private, non-profit organizations to educate approximately 60% of Camden’s total student population and over 80% of the students currently enrolled in district schools.
Governor Christie’s decisions have set in motion a dramatic change in the delivery of education to Camden’s school children for generations to come, unless his effort to “charterize” virtually the entire district is challenged or fails. As these private organizations open charter schools, the State-run district will be closing neighborhood public and magnet schools, along with existing “homegrown” charter schools, to accommodate growing enrollments in – and outflow of funds to – the KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon schools.
This process has already begun. The Commissioner recently ordered the closure of two local charters. In the final 2014-15 budget, the State-run district reported a nearly 30% projected increase in charter enrollments from 3,877 to 5,035 students, and a consequent 30% increase in payments to charter schools from the district budget, from $55.5 million to $72 million, as a result of the opening of the first KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon schools. The State-run district then cut funding, staff and programs from the budgets of district-run schools to address the budget shortfall triggered in part by the increase in charter payments.
The legal implications of these decisions are also profound. Governor Christie’s decisions have officially transferred formal responsibility for educating a significant majority of Camden children from the public school district to private organizations, with virtually no accountability to the parents and community. The Governor has also relegated the State-run district to the largely ministerial task of closing neighborhood schools, transferring increasingly larger shares of the district budget to charters, and serving as the “last resort educator” of students KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon either refuse to serve or are unable to serve.
So what is known about those in charge of the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains, now that Governor Christie has given them a pivotal role in the education of Camden’s school children? Documents provided by the State to Education Law Center through the NJ Open Public Records Act (OPRA), including contracts signed on July 17 between Mastery, Uncommon and the State-run district, and these organizations’ websites provide some important information.
The website for Uncommon Schools lists the Board of Directors, led by Norman Atkins, of the umbrella organization that runs numerous schools in New York City. Uncommon was also incorporated in New Jersey in 1996, and has a separate Board that operates North Star charter school in Newark. There is no information on whether the New Jersey trustees will also oversee the five Camden schools, or whether a separate, Camden-based non-profit and Board will be put in place. There is no information on the individuals who will be directly responsible for Camden school operations. In the contract approved by the State to operate schools in Camden, Uncommon is required to designate a “Point of Contact” to provide information to the State-run district, but that individual is not identified in the contract.
Mastery recently formed a separate non-profit organization in New Jersey – Mastery Schools of Camden, Inc. – to operate its Camden schools. The corporation’s by-laws list three trustees of Mastery Camden: Jeremy Nowak of Philadelphia and former director of the William Penn Foundation; Stacy Holland of the State-run Philadelphia school district; and Rev. Reuel M. Robinson, Executive Vice President of Family Life Ministries in Camden. The State-approved contract to open and operate Camden schools requires Mastery to also designate a “Point of Contact” to provide information to the State-run district, but that individual is not identified in the contract.
It is also unclear whether the Board of Trustees of these organizations will be required to hold regular public meetings in Camden and, if so, will be required to comply with the NJ Open Public Meetings Act. It is not known whether they will have to comply with the Open Public Records Act to provide documents upon proper request by parents, citizens and community organizations. The contracts to operate in Camden do not spell out the requirement to comply with these and other basic provisions that govern the operation of NJ school district boards.
Governor Christie has taken the unprecedented step of placing constitutional responsibility to provide Camden school children with a thorough and efficient education in the hands of three private, non-profit corporations. He has also consigned the State-run district to the role of transferring significant amounts of public funds to these organizations as their enrollments grow from year to year.
It is incumbent upon Camden students, parents and community organizations to become knowledgeable about the Boards of Trustees of KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon, since they now are entrusted with the legal obligation to educate most of the city’s school children. The community must also prepare to hold these Trustees accountable for meeting the academic and education-related needs of all Camden school children, especially those at-risk and those with disabilities and other special needs, and for using all public education dollars in an effective, efficient and transparent manner.
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