When a Charter Comes to Town: The Mobilization of Suburban Opposition
by Christine McGoey , Regina Tuma and Michelle Fine for Montclair Cares About Schools
On September, 30 Montclair, New Jersey received news that the New Jersey Department of Education had denied an application for a French Immersion Charter School that would have dealt a severe blow to Montclair’s public school programs and budget. This piece reflects on how the town came to this united opposition while more broadly reflecting on the inequities in the charter law process that deny the voices of local communities. In fact, the day the Montclair Charter was rejected, charters in Paterson and Asbury Park were approved against the wishes of local voices in those districts. When this charter threat came to town, it was Montclair’s turn to experience what has been the norm in Newark, Paterson and other districts: the inability to control our own district.
Montclair is a leafy suburb, known for “progressive” politics, independent film, good restaurants, racially desegregated schools; a town filled with diverse kinds of families and household arrangements, sitting about 12 miles west of New York City and not far from the NJ cities of Paterson and Newark. Montclair has long been viewed as a progressive town with highly-regarded public schools noted nationally for successfully desegregating through a districtwide magnet system. For years Montclair was known as a school system with a strong commitment to equity and creativity; where teachers designed one elementary school, a detracked middle school and small learning communities in the high school; where 9th grade World Literature was detracked through teacher innovation; where the community – involved Writers Room was borne. Kids of all racial/ethnic backgrounds, (dis)abilities and socio-economic status go to all schools; families of all colors, classes, and sexual preferences are welcome here. And of course our schools, like all schools, continue to be plagued by class and race opportunity gaps; the racial class balance remains uneven across the magnet elementaries, and special education has its own unique version of racialized injustices in terms of who gets out of district placement, full time aides, or sent to a crowded room in the basement. No one has ever been fully satisfied with the accomplishments of our schools, but as a system we are proud to say we strive to create race/class equity in a country that has fundamentally walked away from that challenge.
Montclair also happens to be home to a number of powerful and nationally known corporate education reformers and charter chain board members, employees and supporters from the likes of Success Academy, Uncommon Schools, Team and Kipp. Christopher Cerf, a long time resident, served as the ed-reform Commissioner of Education instrumental in creating the infamous “One Newark” plan and now serves as Newark Superintendent imposing it on that city. The newly appointed Presidents of NJ DFER (Democrats for Education Reform) and NJ BAOE (Black Alliance for Education Opportunities) live here. The President of DFER, Shavar Jeffries, living in nearby Newark, has initiated lawsuits against progressive parents and politicians in the town.
The standing of Montclair’s public schools has not insulated Montclair from the corporate style ed reforms advanced by New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie. Montclair’s public schools have faced a number of assaults from corporate ed reform during the last 6 years, many of which have been written about on Diane Ravitch’s blog; see here, here and here.
About Montclair Cares About Schools (MCAS)
Montclair Cares About Schools initially formed in 2013 to take back the town’s public schools after a majority ed-reform Board of Education hired an Eli Broad trained Superintendent. MCAS has continued to advocate for high quality, diverse, equitable public education and against unproven ed reform in Montclair’s public schools. The town opposition to corporate reform has been incredibly successful.
MCAS has always recognized the struggle in Montclair was not isolated from the struggle in urban districts. MCAS also could not help but see that the harm to public education in those places was taking place, in large part, at the hands of many Montclair reformers. We have always had this broader picture in mind and have worked in solidarity across the state. Many of us traveled to other communities and hosted “Take the PARCC” sessions, so that parents in Newark and more elite suburbs could experience the testing regime for themselves. In 2014, our opt out rate was 49%, one of the highest in NJ.
Across the years when we endured a Broad Academy Superintendent, we hosted scores of community forums on racial equity and school governance, performance assessment, race and testing, privacy rights of students, multi-cultural curriculum and detracking. Eventually our Broad Academy superintendent retired, under extreme community pressure; disappearing in the middle of the night, leaving behind a multi-million dollar deficit. Within 13 months of the departure of our Superintendent, the charter application was initiated.
The Charter Application
In March, 2016, two residents Darryle Bogan and Janelle Anderson filed an initial application to open a k-8 French immersion charter school with emphasis on the “achievement” gap and the PARCC test. The application cited as advisors persons affiliated with the HoLa Charter School in Hoboken, NJ, which currently is the subject of litigation for increasing segregation in that district. (The French Alliance School was also listed as advisor, but later denied any such role. As the application progressed through New Jersey’s charter process into a final phase 2 review, it morphed to include promises of providing STEAM and STEM education.)
The Montclair Board of Education voted unanimously in favor of the Superintendent’s recommendation to oppose the charter application, citing the pedagogical failings of the application, the track record of immersion and other charters in exacerbating segregation and widening achievement gaps, and the loss of revenue and services in the district.
When our BOE voted against the charter, we noticed that many in the community thought the charter had been denied, erroneously thinking the decision rested with the BOE. Other Montclair residents believed the application would be denied outright given the strength of our schools and the important role the magnets play in desegregation. Implicit in these beliefs was the underlying conviction that since these were our schools, and we knew what was best for our community, no decision could run counter. Our community was not yet fully “woke.”
Many people did not understand that under NJ charter law, communities lose their rights to democratic, local control over their school budgets and programs. The state may consider district recommendations and opposition, but the NJ DOE is the “sole charter school authorizer.” It has the power to force residents to pay for charters that harm district public schools, whether or not the community wants or needs them. Although the state calls charter schools “public,” they do not answer to the public, but operate independently of local school boards and the public that pays for them.
MCAS’s Opposition Work
Already deeply embedded in the community, with an extremely strong Facebook following, MCAS took a number of immediate actions. First, MCAS publicly joined the district’s opposition and began using public comment at Board of Education meetings and letters to the editor in The Montclair Times to invite other groups and individuals to unite behind the Board of Education – including those who were on the “other side” with respect to testing and our corporate reform Superintendent. MCAS called on the BOE or Town Council to hold a public rally to educate about and oppose the charter. Next, MCAS moved to support the district’s opposition by creating and continually publicizing an on line letter residents could use to register their charter opposition directly to the NJ DOE and 13+ pertinent public officials.
MCAS then organized a May, 2016 community Forum on Charter Schools. A panel of leading NJ education activists who had experienced charters in their communities and had researched the impact of charters came to speak. This forum built on an earlier January, 2016 forum which had also discussed the impact of charters and community schools, with particular emphasis on the devastation wrought on public education in Newark, New Jersey by the substantial state investment in charter takeovers. (A list of those speakers is included after this article as a resource for others.)
This forum proved very important in galvanizing the town. Members of the community, the town council and leading, local organizations attended the forum, where the perils of a charter to the public schools became real. The information provided by the panel further educated our town governing bodies about the harms we faced. The Mayor and Town Council moved to pass a resolution opposing the charter and supporting the BOE.
In our view, once the town council took this action, it created an opening for the individuals and groups willing to come out in opposition. The PTA and NAACP were quick to follow and our on-line letter in opposition grew steadily. The local ed-reform group, Montclair Kids First issued a statement opposing this charter – but not charters in low income communities of color. In a town full of powerful corporate charter supporters, it became safer to oppose the charter.
In July 2016, in spite of the Montclair BOE and growing community opposition, the NJ DOE advanced the charter application out of phase 1 approval into phase 2 approval. This news further alerted the community and galvanized opposition during the otherwise sleepy summer months when education or schools news recedes as a local issue.
The Opposition Grows
A few parents who wanted to oppose this Montclair charter, but did not want to address the issues around NJ charters in general or to be affiliated with any other education issues or groups, formed their own Facebook group called Montclair Residents Opposed to the Fulbright Charter, and began leafletting and collecting petition signatures in opposition to the charter.
MCAS continued to lobby state leaders, individuals and groups to come out in opposition to the charter. We invited the community, parents and educators to join MCAS and we marched with anti-charter and support public schools signs during the 4th of July Parade in Montclair. We were joined by parents and activists from South Orange Maplewood, Bloomfield, Verona, and Glen Ridge–neighboring towns concerned about the impact of the Montclair Charter on their school budgets. A parent from Montclair Residents joined us and distributed anti-charter materials along the parade route.
We distributed hundreds of informational leaflets, and engaged in frequent email blasts. Many other groups did the same, some more publicly, some less, each overlapping and amplifying the others’ impacts. As public opposition grew in response to BOE and Town leadership, Town public officials and the BOE were further empowered by public support. State officials took notice of the public opposition.
In late summer, a town council woman held a meeting on the suitability of the site and impact of the proposed charter location on public safety and traffic.
The Montclair BOE president and representatives from the NAACP and all local community groups opposing the charter addressed the NJSBOE at its September meeting.
The Montclair BOE decided to hold a public, charter opposition rally. MCAS worked over the summer with the BOE and other community groups and public officials including the NAACP, PTA and Montclair Residents to support the BOE rally. The BOE hosted a successful rally on September 14th at which town and state legislative leaders addressed the crowd. You can read about the rally here and here.
On September 20th, Montclair State Senator Nia Gill obtained a meeting with David Hespe, the outgoing NJ Commissioner of Education, where the Montclair BOE president, Superintendent and representatives from MCAS and Montclair Residents were able to present their publicly stated opposition.
In the end, MCAS sent 1,918 letters through our on line letter that went directly to the NJDOE and13+ public officials. Many of these officials told us that the letters were a constant and strong reminder of the opposition. The group Montclair Residents collected 1,300 letters at events around town, bringing the total letters sent to over 3000. No less than 10 other Montclair groups publicly opposed the charter including, by rough order of when they entered the opposition: The Montclair PTA, Montclair NAACP, Montclair 250, Montclair Education Association, Montclair Kids First, Montclair Residents Opposed to the Fulbright/Montclair Charter, Montclair Community Pre- K, Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, Montclair Civil Rights Commission, and Montclair SEPAC.
These were joined by two editorials by The Montclair Times editorial Board and a steady stream of letters to the editor from parents opposing the charter from March until this writing. State officials also joined Mayor Jackson and the Montclair Town Council: State Senator Nia Gill, Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, and Freeholder Brendan Gill and the Essex County Freeholders also supported the opposition by the BOE and Superintendent. The Boards of Education of neighboring towns of Glen Ridge and Bloomfield, NJ also opposed the charter.
The NJ DOE seemed to listen the Montclair BOE and the concerns of the community and denied the charter on Sept 30, 2016. Montclair feels heard and many have credited the town’s unified position and activism. We prevailed, but the charter applicants have declared that they intend to refile their application. In the meantime, the NJ DOE recently announced that it is pursuing new, yet more expansive regulations that would ease charter issuance and further relax regulation. You can read about the proposed regulations here and here.
And yet in stark contrast, on the same day the Montclair charter was denied, another charter was approved for our neighbors in Paterson, where charter school proliferation has seriously infringed on the public school budget. A charter was also granted for Asbury Park. Both of these communities serve primarily students of color. Under Governor Christie, charter expansion/proliferation of corporate networks has grown exponentially in communities of color.
Parent organizing is the most powerful weapon against privatization. However, parent organizing is given different weight when it comes from more or less privileged communities, Each community deserves a democratic right to control its school budget, Solidarity with communities of color, by suburban parents, is essential for the struggle to sustain public education–it is not enough to protect the public schools in our backyards, We must critically question our own impulses to credit our rights for democratic control, while tolerating or ignoring the rights of other communities.
The charter process in NJ is deeply flawed and wholly centralized so that community input is irrelevant. It is a law that must be challenged.
Finally, Montclair Cares About Schools supports the NAACP/#BlackLivesMatter, Journey for Justice demand for a moratorium on charters and reinvestment in public education. At a minimum, we insist that community voice be heard. No charter “for” anyone without an affirming community vote.
5/14/16 – An Analysis of Charter School Impact on Public School Districts
Darcie Cimarusti, President, Highland Park BOE, Blogger “Mother Crusader “
Liz Mulholland, Parent Advocate and Former Special Education Teacher
Sharon Smith, Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSE)
Mark Weber, Teacher, Researcher, Blogger “Jersey Jazzman”
Panel Moderated by Dr. Michelle Fine, co-author Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education
1/9/16 – The Changing Landscape of Ed “Reform”: Advocating for Democratic, Integrated Education
Marla Kilfoyle, Executive Director, BATs
Leonie Haimson, Executive Director, Class Size Matters
Stan Karp, Editor, Rethinking Schools
Julia Sass Rubin, Associate Professor, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University and founding member of SOS NJ
Lauren Wells, (then) Chief Education Officer, Mayor’s Office, Newark, NJ