Members of the Camden Board of Education were being patted on the back for turning down four proposals by politically connected interests to add new Renaissance schools to the school system. But since the board didn’t offer any viable alternatives to the Renaissance proposals for children trapped in schools that clearly aren’t educating them, the board’s action appears to be little more than theater.
It’s understandable that a city that in the recent past has had to swallow its pride and let the state run things because it was unable to make ends meet would bristle when presented with yet another idea that would undercut the authority of a local institution.
After all, while the Renaissance schools would be under the board’s authority as public schools, their degree of autonomy would make them independent for all practical purposes. There is justifiable fear, not just in Camden, but in urban districts across America, that the encroachment of charters will increase to the point that regular public schools no longer get the money and attention they need to improve.
The board turned down proposals for four Renaissance schools, which under the Urban Hope Act that was passed by the Legislature last year must first be approved locally. Regular charters only need state approval.
Private companies would build the Renaissance schools, and the district would provide them with up to 95 percent of the amount it would have spent on each student had the student remained in a regular public school. The district said it might have to divert between $18 million to $22 million in per-pupil spending to each Renaissance school, with more than 4,000 students transferring to the charters.
It was a surprise that the board rejected the proposal for a Renaissance school in the Lanning Square neighborhood, which seemed to have built the support it needed for approval. For years, that neighborhood has wanted to replace an elementary school that was closed in 2002.
The KIPP proposal was submitted by a partnership of the Norcross Foundation Inc., a charity created by the family of State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and his brother George E. Norcross 3d; the charitable foundation of Cooper University Hospital, which George Norcross chairs; and one of the nation’s largest charter operators, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). George Norcross is also a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer.
The word “courageous” was applied to the board by some Camden residents after it rejected the Renaissance plans. They suggested powerful interests wanted to benefit financially from the construction of new charter schools via no-bid contracts, and that the New Jersey Department of Education’s goal is to eviscerate the Camden school board’s authority. In making those accusations, the critics said they were standing up for Camden’s schoolchildren.
Their hearts are in the right place. And they should question whether the Renaissance schools will drain too much money from the regular schools. That should not be allowed to happen. Nor should there be dubious deals allowing connected individuals to tap into school construction dollars. But without offering anything more than their continued hopes and prayers for Camden’s schoolchildren, the board’s rejection of the Renaissance proposals is troubling. Regular Camden schools do deserve more investment to get better. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to also invest in alternatives that might help children learn sooner.