For a public forum on the future of education that was not supposed to be about charter schools, there certainly was a lot of talk Thursday evening about just that—charter schools.
Julia Sass Rubin of Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots group of public school parents, told a crowd of concerned caregivers at a meeting Thursday night that charter schools tend to segregate students.
The forum, titled "Keeping Public Schools Public," was sponsored by the Montclair Public Schools, Councilor Renee Baskerville, the Montclair Council of PTAs, the Montclair Education Association, and the Montclair NAACP, among other organizations. The aim was to discuss the overall privatization of public education, including the idea of for-profit companies overseeing schools.
"What happens with charter schools is that kids are usually admitted through a lottery ... those who apply tend to be more educated ... more motivated," said Rubin, an associate professor of public policy at Rutgers University whose own child attends a charter school.
"If you are out trying to put a roof over your head you are less likely to have the time to be studying your child's economic options," she said. "Charter schools tend to have fewer poor students and fewer special needs students."
In addition to making school districts more segregated, Rubin also argued that charter schools, if applied for, should require local approval—which is not the case in the state of New Jersey.
"There have been these tensions building up especially in the last six months as more higher-income districts try to get charter schools," she said. "In New Hampshire, for example, they require a local vote before there's a charter school."
Rubin said she's not against the idea of charter schools in general.
"But the problem is that they are not homogenous," she said, adding that New Jersey allows the state to authorize charter schools regardless of a community's wishes.
Rubin said she doesn't expect Gov. Chris Christie to approve any more charter schools in higher-income districts before the next election "because there has been such a push-back from people."
Christie has made charter school expansion a centerpiece of his education reform agenda, arguing that charter schools play a vital role in proving districts don’t need to be heavily subsidized by the state to provide quality education for their students.
Also on Thursday evening, Stan Karp, from the Education Law Center, and Debra Jennings, of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, Inc. (NJ), spoke about other issues related to education funding and reform.
Karp noted that although New Jersey leads the nation in some areas, it ranks 45 when it comes to the share of local education funding picked up by the state.
"We need sustained and equitable and fairer funding [from the state] over many years," he said, noting that uncertain funding sometimes leads school boards to make bad decisions.
Karp told parents that the 2008 School Funding Reform Act, which would funnel millions more in state aid to Montclair, is not fully funded. This leaves school districts uncertain, year-to-year, as to how much aid they will get from the state.
Mary Beth Rosenthal, one of the organizers of Thursday night's forum, said that the purpose of the gathering was much broader than the question of whether charter schools are good or bad.
"Charter schools exist as part of the landscape of education reform," she said. "Everyone supports good public schools, whether they're charter schools or traditional public schools."
Rosenthal said: "Education reform is more than just charter schools. Here in New Jersey, our governor has made some game-changing proposals—especially his pilot program to allow private, for-profit companies to run public schools. That's a really big idea, and one we think people in Montclair will be very interested in."
In June, Christie unveiled legislation that would allow private companies to run five chronically failing New Jersey schools through a public-private partnership pilot program.
Only districts with low-performing schools would be allowed to participate in the program, and participation would require support from local school boards. The legislation would permit for-profit companies to manage the schools.