Photo: Jodi Samsel/Courier-Post

Almost a month ago, City Invincible Charter School was arbitrarily closed. The arbitrariness was blatant; there was no patience to wait for the school’s second year of test scores, and no attention paid to indicators that scores had increased in the charter’s second year. The harshness of a sudden closing has attracted eyes from the community, some choosing to post their support here on this blog. Others in the broader education community have perked up their ears as well. I want to share two of those important takeaways, and one of my own: the support for charters in NJ is shifting towards charter management chains, the realization of “mom and pop” charters that school closings are arbitrary and political, and the necessity to move to the next hot thing because there’s not a lot of evidence charters work.

Let’s start with the first. Are Charter Management Organizations being preferred over others? 

Randy Ribay, a board member for City Invincible, argues yes

I just think it reeks of politics that they have suddenly decided to close our school in the very same year KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon schools are set to open. Because there’s a dearth of facilities in the city that can serve as schools, you shouldn’t be surprised to see one of their banners hanging over our doors come September.

But it’s Darcie Cimarusti, at Mother Crusader, that connects the dots. Darcie points out the roll that the Charter School Growth Fund is specifically designed to fund Charter Management Organizations. She points specifically to their funders and investors:

So who has heeded the call and invested in CSGF?

All the folks you’d assume – Broad, Gates, Walton and a whole host of others (click the link above – the list is extensive). 

In fact, Walton heir Carrie Walton Penner, recently described as an “uber education policy wonk“, is married to the co-chair of CSGF, Greg Penner.

These are central figures in the “ed reform” movement, and their involvement helps demonstrate the importance of chains, demonstrated by the focus here on scalability.

For “mom and pop” charters, the type of schools originally envisioned by the charter movement, the lack of support has come as a shock. Sue Altman, over at Edushyster, points out the irony:

Oh, Mr. Ribay, I am so glad that you’ve realized that the decision to close your school and open others was *politically motivated.*  (Guess what? So was the decision to open yours.)  And, I’m equally glad you recognize it’s horribly unfair that some schools are *aligned with wealthy individuals and institutions* and others aren’t.  But do you not note the irony?  From where, may I ask, did you get your students, your funding, and your right to open?

Why it was a mere two years ago that City Invincible Charter entered the Camden scene with the warmest embrace of the state.

 But Altman takes it a step further, and points out the potential for a coalition between traditional neighborhood schools that have been arbitrarily closed, and small charters that are now getting the same treatment: 

Could we be seeing the first rift within the charter movement: the boutique single-school *mom and pop shop* charters vs the big corporate style chains?  Is there finally some tension, not to mention some possible common ground? If the leaders of City Invincible are looking for some allies, they might consider joining forces with the newly laid-off district teachers and principals in community schools just down the street.  Both City Invincible and Camden’s community schools will be forced to make way as the Mastery, KIPP and Uncommon chains expand, whether Camden residents like it or not.

So, City Invincible, we feel your pain. You might not be trendy anymore, but at least you’re getting it.

Look at comments here on Randy Ribay’s post, and you see kernels of this. Many of the complaints about City Invincible echo those we hear every time schools in a district are closed based on misunderstanding of test scores or community priorities: 

Sandra Turner-Barnes argues: 

And we were proud we had accomplished that so that this new educational process could begin. And I watched the children’s faces, their smiles, I listened to their laughter, and I knew they were prepared to learn now, they were within a trusted environment, under the protection of teachers and administrators who had proven that they cared about more than just a paycheck; the children could now relax and learn. And the parents, they could relax now too, because this community within a community was for them too, here they found the help and support they needed, too. We even began a special learning and mentoring program for the parents; in our second year, things were really getting good!

Susan Ostrich mentions: 

In September 2012, City Invincible Charter School opened in Camden with the goal of providing a holistic education for each child. Located in a church in one of the more challenging areas of Camden, surrounded by vacant buildings and several (yes-not one but several) operating drug houses, City invincible opened their small school.

Advocates of traditional schools are familiar with these arguments. The arguments for establishing community. The arguments that, as all good research indicates, outside of school factors such as environment and poverty have real impact on test scores. 

As small “mom and pop” charter advocates find themselves on the wrong side of ever-changing politics, they’re going to learn these lessons firsthand. Over the next few years we’re going to see an increase in disillusioned TFA alumns and small charter operators. 

But there’s a larger lesson here, one that is inevitable. The scale of the promise made by education reformers is a critical factor driving this kind of whiplash. The promises made by those advocating these new schools have been so big, and the assertion that schools are failing so fierce, there is almost no choice but to throw schools under the bus and move to the latest fad. 

The initial movement to charter schools was accompanied by promises that charters would outperform traditional schools based on test scores. But they didn’t. So the attention has turned to “no excuses” charter schools. But it’s looking more and more like the higher test scores in “no excuses” schools are driven largely by strict discipline that rids the schools of troublesome students. North Star Academy, part of the Uncommon Schools network that we’ve invited into Camden, loses well over half of its black males.

The gains by these schools will continue to be shown to be illusionary. That will leave those finally backing them with two choices: they can admit kindly admit they’ve promised gains in test scores that these schools can’t deliver, or they can double down on the next miracle fad.

City Invincible Charter School just learned what they chose last time.


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