And here we are. Every since the state takeover of education in Camden happened, I’ve had one mantra. You can’t open schools without closing others. Today’s news that 4 schools will be taken over by Renaissance schools, and an additional school will be closed, was expected by many following the Camden education scene. But it is no less sad, frustrating or angering for residents and those who wish to support Camden’s traditional public schools. I want to make three main points about the closure and takeovers: 1) the process of deciding to close these schools included token participation, but shied away from any direct accountability to the parents in these schools 2) the process of closing these schools is based upon a clear misunderstanding of what test scores mean, ignoring the role of poverty, second-language learners, and special education 3) closing schools with average and above average occupancy, and replacing them with Renaissance schools that came in under their first year projection for students, shows the hypocrisy of the “voting with your feet” school choice narrative. This was a political decision, and Camden residents can neither vote with their feet, nor, with a state-appointed superintendent and an unelected advisory school board, vote through a traditional legal process. This was done to Camden residents, not with them.
1) The decision to takeover traditional schools with Renaissance schools was built upon token participation.
I attended two of the community meetings to discuss what to do with “struggling schools.” While it was good to hold public meetings, in the two meetings I attended not a single parent or student from the schools that were eventually closed spoke. There was good turnout from the new Camden Parents for Great Schools, and the emergence of this group is important and deserves its own post, but most of these can be described as addressing targeted issues (from the food served in the school cafeteria to parents struggles with getting services for a special needs child) or as personal testimonies from parents of Renaissance schools (Mastery, in particular, did a good job of getting parents out at their meetings). These testimonies are important, but it is a tremendous failure of the School District to not be able to reach a single parent from the schools in discussion.
The actors here, particularly Mastery, should understand the difference between bringing their supporters to a meeting, and the community truly having the right to decide what happens to a neighborhood school. In Philadelphia, the Edward T. Steel School was supposed to be taken over by Mastery. When it went to an actual vote of parents, it was voted down decisively. Camden residents have not been afforded the same rights.
The inability of the Camden School District to get out the parents who are affected by this decision (i.e. those who chose to attend these schools that will now close or be taken over) speaks to a broader problem with the takeover ideology. The newcomers in the district office, who need not be elected, experienced, or know anything of Camden upon their arrival, simply don’t have the ability to find bridges into the more difficult recesses of Camden. It’s not easy to reach parents at struggling schools. It is much easier (though, probably still a good thing) to organize parents who agree with you at the schools you ideologically support. As Ivan Illich argues, it’s so much easier to listen to those who share more of our background and ideology.
2) Ignoring the effects of poverty
Plenty of people have said this better than me, but you can’t compare schools (and school districts) with different levels of poverty. Since poverty, special education rates, english as a second-language learner all are strongly correlated with lower scores, when you compare them without considering these things, you’re largely just saying “this area is poorer” not “this are is doing a worse job providing education.” The corollary to this is that, there are virtually no school districts that are comparative to Camden, because poverty (and other factors) are higher here. I’m going to pick on the District’s slideshow from the public meetings here; if any of my students provided me this chart in a paper, it’d be the surest way to a lot of red ink.
The more interesting comparison is with “similar schools.” Without knowing the methodology, this is meaningless, most likely subject to the same critique. The superintendent’s verbal presentation of the material indicated that this comparison was to other schools districts like Elizabeth, Paterson and Newark. But these areas don’t have as much poverty etc. as Camden.
So what this graph actually tells us is what we already know. New Jersey has a gruesome history of segregating its poor (and often minority) into cities, and that segregation has all kinds of bad outcomes, including bad test scores. Of these segregated cities, Camden is among the toughest, and home to the most dire need.
In the graph below, there are the proficiency rates for specific Camden schools. But without knowledge about the student population, we have no way of knowing what is driving the lower numbers. It’s the same problem. There are enough indications in broader data (particularly if you look at things like gender) to show that there is creaming in Camden. So the schools with the lowest scores are likely the schools with the highest needs.
This may sound academic, but it’s not. If we insist on closing the schools in the neighborhoods with the most poverty, with the most special needs children, a sorting occurs. These areas lose many of their resources (in other cities, this includes buildings, in Camden it certainly includes their most experienced educators and those most familiar with the community). This is particularly troubling, because of the record of the new schools coming to Camden (Mastery, KIPP and Uncommon) struggling to serve these same students, and having high attrition rates.
Now, maybe the school district is actually doing some of this analysis behind close doors, but with a record of not taking into consideration things like special education rates, closing schools based on little data, and with the laughable slides they are showing in public, it’s hard to believe there is much of an understanding of the data they’re collecting. Instead, they are likely closing schools with the most need, and opening up schools that fit their ideology, all while creating a sorting affect that further segregates the Camden system.
3) The hypocrisy of “Voting with your Feet”
Over and over again in Camden, I’ve heard that it’s ok that parents don’t have voting rights (more on this topic broadly from Jersey Jazzman), or elected oversight over an increasingly diffuse group of non-profits running schools, because they can vote with their feet. Except the district’s own slides show that occupancy was average or even better for all but one of these schools, while the Education Law Center shows that the new Renaissance Schools came in below projected enrollments. Camden residents voted with their feet, and their traditional neighborhood schools closed anyway. Here’s the slide from the District:
Note how Bonsall, Molina, both had average occupancy while McGraw and Whittier had good occupancy. Only East Camden had a suffering enrollment. Then note the contrast with the new Renaissance Schools (from Ed Law Center):
? Mastery enrolled 368 students, 15% below projected enrollment.
? Uncommon enrolled 71 students, 21% below projected enrollment.
? KIPP enrolled 105 students, one above projected enrollment.
This is what voting with your feet looks like in Camden. Schools with good attendance are closed to open up new spots in schools that are already below projected enrollment. To replace schools with good attendance, after replacing rights with an ideology of “voting with your feet” is the height of hypocrisy.
The closing of one Camden school, and takeover of four others, shows what many have feared and suspected all along. This plan was about enforcing an educational ideology through brute power. Residents could not vote on this plan, they could not vote with their feet, and token participation limited their influence in public forums. Former Camden School Board member Jose Delgado said it best. This was all planned.