More charter schools for Camden isn't the solution

Gov. Christie has made charter schools and vouchers the cornerstones of his education reform plan. (AP PHOTO / Julio Cortez)

New Jersey has approved six more charter schools for Camden in its ongoing misguided approach to reforming urban public education. Charter schools offer a viable option, but they also siphon desperately needed money from traditional public schools and the children left behind who still attend them.

Several other recently approved charters are to be located in Jersey City, Newark, and Trenton — more struggling urban districts. Not surprising, none will be placed in suburban districts, where proposals for them have faced stiff opposition.

Gov. Christie has made charter schools and vouchers the cornerstones of his public education agenda. That might be fine if he weren’t at the same time ignoring the plight of  regular schools that need more help to improve. There are currently 80 charter schools operating in New Jersey, with 33 more scheduled to open in September, if they are deemed ready to operate by state officials.

Camden already has seven charters in an only 9-square-mile city. Some city officials have raised legitimate concerns that eventually the district “is going to be wiped away,” replaced by a network of charters. The district estimates $56.5 million of its $314 million budget for next school year will go to fund charters, compared with $43 million this year.

Regular schools could use that money to improve, if they had the right leadership, which is something else Camden schools lack. State education officials contend Camden’s traditional public schools are over-funded by more than $50 million. The district spends about $6,000 more per student than the state average. But the state can’t point a finger without also pointing at itself. A state fiscal monitor  has overseen Camden’s finances for six years, and may veto any questionable spending.

Placing so much emphasis on charters also ignores that their academic performance has been mixed. As seen in Philadelphia, some charters suffer from gross mismanagement. If New Jersey wants to see just how badly its traditional schools could be hurt by a proliferation of charters, it need only look at Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland school system, one of the worst districts in that state.

Problems in the Delaware County school district have worsened with its embrace of charter schools. Chester Upland has the highest percentage of students in charters in Pennsylvania, about 3,025 students. Chester Upland spends about 40 percent of its budget on payments to charters. Left behind in the crumbling regular schools are 3,650 students who are either unable or unwilling to flee.

A few months ago, the Chester Upland district was on the brink of a financial collapse, with the possibility that it would be unable to pay its bills or teachers. The state recently proposed a partial $27 million bailout, but that’s only a temporary solution. The lesson for New Jersey and other states is that charters are not a magic pill. They can be part of the mix, but they are no substitute for doing the harder work of making bad schools good.