As a Camden resident, educator, and parent of a child who has attended Camden public schools since pre-kindergarten — she’s in ninth grade now — I know public schools are the heart of our communities. They are much more than places to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. Our schools are places where neighborhood children build lifelong relationships. They’re also community centers where parents and neighbors come together to help communities grow and find fellowship. Public schools are spaces where families invest time and hard-earned tax dollars, because schools hold our most precious commodity – our children and their future.
Camden public schools have been a symbol of pride, stability and hope for generations of Camden students and their families. Unfortunately, local and state politics are making it more difficult to serve our community’s students as predatory legislation, policies, and politics continue to target our public schools for closure.
The Urban Hope Act of 2012 was a law passed several years ago that resulted in the establishing of Renaissance schools in Camden. Despite their flowery title, Renaissance schools are more commonly referred to in other areas, and other states, as managed takeover schools.
Renaissance schools are like charter schools in many ways, except that Renaissance schools in Camden, unlike charters, got the bulk of their schools and students through District Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard’s simply giving away our district public school buildings, and their students, to Renaissance school providers.
Since 2012, Renaissance schools have been responsible for eight public school closures and takeovers. Now, once again, in Gov. Christie’s last week in office, the Legislature is attempting to expand Renaissance schools without regard for their predatory impact on our district’s schools and our students.
The pending re-introduction of New Jersey Senate Bill S-3309, sponsored by Nilsa Cruz-Perez, would further expand the Renaissance school footprint here in Camden, and further drain district resources from students and communities. S-3309 seeks to expand the definition of an “urban campus area” allowing these takeover schools to grow way beyond the Urban Hope Act’s original intent, covering most of our nine-square mile city. It provides fewer rules governing the types of facilities that may be “Renaissance school projects,” making it easier for these schools to push out traditional schools.
The original law said that a Renaissance school project had to begin with the construction of a brand new building; it was later amended to allow for a “substantially reconstructed building.” But If the proposed amendments in S-3309 pass, the Urban Hope Act would allow Renaissance schools to expand into any school building as long as it was newly renovated or constructed within five years before the CMO takes over.
In essence, these new amendments target the newer public school buildings in Camden, as well as absolving Renaissance schools from their responsibility to build a new, or substantially renovate facilities, and can simply operate out of any building the district superintendent hands over to them; including neighborhood schools.
In all, this legislation would result in nothing more than a land grab. To add insult to injury, the tax breaks given to the companies moving into Camden keep the big dollars going exclusively to the Renaissance schools. Meanwhile, the tax base our traditional schools depend upon is becoming nonexistent. This is no accident. It is a deliberate, sustained political attack on our system of public schools and our students.
Renaissance school expansion should not be allowed at the expense of our traditional public schools.
It is a disservice to both students and families to treat our traditional schools as if they are the problem and Renaissance schools as the solution to the challenges of public education – especially during a time when our public-school enrollment is rising.
This year, our public schools are serving more students than our district analysts projected this time last year. Fact is, that of the 3,800 students enrolled in Renaissance schools, most students were simply turned over along with their buildings, not parents withdrawing their child from public school in one location to attend a Renaissance school at separate location. The parental demand for Renaissance schools is below what lawmakers anticipated, while residents’ demand and belief in their public schools continues to rise.
Every child in Camden deserves access to a great education whether it takes place in a public, charter, parochial, technical, or an existing Renaissance school. To make that happen, we need a true investment in our public schools. We need continued community and parental support. We need all stakeholders to make a firm commitment to the preservation and support for Camden’s Public Schools for its children, its educators, and the Camden community. We cannot allow financial and political interests driving S-3309 to prey on children’s public education in Camden City.
Keith E. Benson is the president of the Camden Education Association.