Going private: Is this the future of our public schools?

New Jersey Gov. Christie greets students at the Lanning Square school in Camden after signing the Urban Hope Act, his plan for developing renaissance schools - which are funded by public money and kept public. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

Privatization of education has been a political football for decades, but somehow it takes on a more strident tone during an election year.

That is what is happening in New Jersey, where Gov. Christie has made it clear he's all for it.

Although he has denied any plans to run for the GOP presidential nomination, and his school plan is limited to the state, Christie's career could take a downturn from backlash against his self-described "aggressive" privatization campaign.

Republicans generally believe privatization would give a boost to the economy, while many Democrats believe it would have detrimental effects on traditionally social institutions, especially schools.

The main concern, critics say, is that companies are profit-driven institutions and not concerned with the welfare of the public.

In January, Christie announced the Urban Hope Act, his plan to bring Camden schools up to standards. It essentially allows nonprofit companies to manage schools in New Jersey, starting with Lanning Square Elementary School in Camden.

Another part of the act allows companies to build schools. The program will start in Trenton, Newark, and Camden, and only four of the schools will be allowed in each district.

"Today, I am proud to sign the Urban Hope Act to finally give students and parents, trapped in some of the state's school districts with the largest achievement gaps, hope and opportunity for increased educational options that will lead to a successful and productive future," Christie said during the announcement of the legislation.

These schools are termed "renaissance schools," and although they are privately run, they are funded with public money.

"While renaissance schools are just one component of my administration's aggressive educational-reform agenda, there is more critical work that must be done this year to address the education challenges facing our state," Christie said.

The program proposes to institute charter schools with less bureaucracy. The act allows companies to apply to the Department of Education to build and/or operate their own renaissance school.

The Urban Hope Act passed with bipartisan cooperation in both chambers - in the state Senate by a 35-3 vote Jan. 8, and in the Assembly, 56-17, with one abstention.

Democrats in both chambers supported the program, including Sen. Shirley Turner of Trenton and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora of Trenton. But some voiced concerns that, although initially providing opportunities for students in failing schools, the program, if not closely monitored, could misuse funds and open up unfair privatization practices in the public sector.

According to vice principal Kasha Giddins of Highland High, teachers and parents are expressing concern about the program as well.

"There are significant cons to privatization because, generally speaking, it almost always equates to receiving less services for the money," Giddins said.

"The access to the most skilled educators may be limited because these private businesses may be forced to or may try to bring in less-experienced people in order to spend less on salaries and things such as benefits. In the areas where more resources may be required," Giddins said, "privatization may limit access to the resources we need."

Students at Highland High School are voicing more support for the act.

Nazmul Hasan, a senior, said, "I personally am not against public schools, but . . . stagnating test scores are clearly visible, a pitiful profit for all the billions the Department of Education has put into public schools.

"I believe giving grants and funding to charter schools, voucher programs, and other options," he said, "will allow reform to seep into public schools. The Urban Hope Act tries to do this in a simple fashion, give more choices to students in failing schools."

Charles Pildis, also a senior, said, "I feel that the privatization of education would be extremely beneficial to the economy, as well as the education of students, both in private and public schools.

"This program will give students the chance to choose their own education route," he said, "and greatly benefit those who choose to remain in the great school system that is already in place."

Of course, many people see the act as a logical solution for the failing schools.

"Anytime you have competition in business, it will improve business," said Donald Netz, principal of the Gloucester Christian School, a local private school.

Asked his opinion on Christie's motives for the act, Netz said he believed the governor passed the act in hopes of helping failing schools, not primarily to battle the teachers union.

The renaissance schools will be funded by public money and kept public - that is, students in the district may enroll for free.

A common concern is that privatization may eventually lead to tuition fees for students in these renaissance schools and that public schools could die off.

The act requires these schools to be monitored, but the main point of the act is to free up schools from bureaucracy and allow them to operate more independently.