The language we use is important. Nice sounding buzzwords like “reform,” “choice,” and others can be used in ways that have devastating effects on communities. The latest word getting a lot of buzz in Camden education circles is “accountability.” But the accountability fetish only applies to a very narrow understanding of the word; the Camden School District is neither legally nor democratically accountable.
With Uncommon Schools now officially approved by the state to come to Camden, it’s worth taking a deeper look at what they mean by accountability. Let’s go directly to the Uncommon Schools website.
Under the heading What is a Charter School? Uncommon Schools explains “accountability” by saying:
A charter school is an independently run public school granted greater flexibility in its operations, in return for greater accountability for performance.
“Performance” is another one of those words that sounds great until we take a deeper look at what it means. By performance, Uncommon Schools means test scores. Uncommon Schools are accountable to the state and judged by test scores. This is controversial only because analysis by Mark Weber and Bruce Baker shows that much of test score gains in Uncommon Schools comes from lower rates of special education or disadvantaged students. Essentially, a significant portion of these scores comes from exclusion.
But test scores are not the only, or even most logical, way to define accountability. And when we expand “accountability” to touch on democratic or legal areas, the school district fails the test.
As I’ve detailed at length here, there is no democratic accountability in Camden. It is the only district to have both a state-appointed superintendent, and a non-elected school board. I’ve long been calling for some sort of standard that parents and students could meet if they disapproved of the changes. Four months ago I asked:
– Is there any scenario in which community feedback could result in the changing of a plan to replace a public school with a Renaissance School? What specifics benchmarks could be met by communities for this to happen?
The answer is no. Teachers have protested. Parents have protested. Students have protested. None have received any indication that there is a scenario in which their voices would make a difference.
The school district uses test-based accountability as a club, but is unwilling to set up any system that will hold itself accountable to the people it serves. That’s a theme. Not only is there a lack of accountability to the Camden residents, but there is a lack of accountability to the law. My colleague at Rutgers, Dr. Julia Sass Rubin, published a piece at EdWeek that details what she calls “Shady Public Dealings:”
Last week, while many of us were busy making plans for the summer, something much more sinister was happening in the halls of the State Capital in Trenton, N. J..
At 11 p.m., on Tuesday, June 24th, legislation was discussed and voted on by the New Jersey Senate and Assembly Budget Committees, without all the legislators understanding what they were approving. “We didn’t have the bills in advance,” complained one of the Senators, “I didn’t know what the hell the bills were.” This legislation was then quickly pushed through the full New Jersey Senate and Assembly.
The legislation revised a 2012 law known as Urban Hope in order to enable two charter chains – Mastery and Uncommon Schools – to claim a large share of Camden’s public education dollars. The charters’ efforts had been imperiled by the grassroots group Save Our Schools NJ, which had sent a series of letters in May to New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe. The letters detailed how the two charter chains and the Camden state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard were violating various aspects of the Urban Hope law in their efforts to open new renaissance charter schools in Camden next fall. The violations included using temporary facilities instead of building new schools; failing to provide key information required by the application; and not giving Camden residents the opportunity to review and comment on their applications.
Rather than stopping their illegal activities in response to the letters, the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains and the Camden Superintendent turned to their friends in the legislature to “fix” the problem by amending the Urban Hope legislation so that what had been illegal could now be legal.
In this case, Uncommon and Mastery Schools, along with the district, did not follow the law as written. The state legislature then changed the law to make their actions legal. This after state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard stood in front of the public at a board of education meeting and, when questioned on the topic, insisted that the Renaissance schools’ applications were in compliance. Will he be held accountable for that?
When it comes to the district’s flawed understanding of test scores, the Camden School District is more than happy to use accountability as a hammer to fire teachers and close schools. But when it comes to being accountable to the people it serves, or to the law it serves under, the district is woefully lacking.