We need to talk about the new normal here in Camden City, which is schools and charter management organizations marketing to attract students. And we have been. For background on the conversation, please check out my (cautiously optimistic) review of the Camden Enrollment System itself, my worries that the Camden School District is trying to play “referee” leaving its district schools at a disadvantage, and the responses to those posts. And check out Laura Waters’ rebuttal to my post. I’ll be responding to her today.

Laura, kindly, calls me “a very nice guy” (thanks!) and that I’m likely a “hoot” at cocktail parties (I’d like to think so!). Sadly, those are the only two lines of her analysis I can agree with. But, jokes aside, I do want to address the two most grievous shortcomings in her post: a tortured analogy to sending residents to public hospitals to die, and an accusation that I am not interested in what Camden parents think/do/believe. In making these overarching statements, Laura is making two mistakes. First, she is proving she knows little of the Camden context, and second she is showing that she fundamentally misunderstands my argument about the choice system we have here in Camden.

I’m not, as she writes, arguing that Renaissance schools “an unfair competitive advantage – a ‘thumb on the scale’ — because they’re more popular and better at marketing” but rather that the policy and district leadership puts local district schools at a disadvantage when it comes to recruitment, in part because District leadership is not as protective of its schools as charter management is of theirs. And that these schools then face dire consequences even though they are competing on an unequal playing field.

This should not be surprising, the current state-appointed leadership has a clear, political dictum to expand certain schools over others. And District leadership, if you catch the right person on the right day, can be frank about realizing the challenges in making the new system equitable for district schools (certainly, Cami Anderson talks about this in the recently released book The Prize). This misunderstanding is critical, because Laura goes on to argue that I do not care about parents’ perspectives, when the opposite is true. I’m arguing that truly engaging with parental perspectives can only happen when the policy context around them is understood, something necessary to avoid the mistake (which Laura makes) of taking convenient parental perspectives that agree with my own and arguing they are the entirety of parental perspective. 

But, before we get to parents, let’s address the tortured hospital analogy that Laura uses. She writes: 

What if we were talking about hospitals? Let’s say a city, poor or rich, has two hospitals but one of them has better patient outcomes that they’re not afraid to advertise  (after accounting, of course, for various factors like preexisting conditions and stuff.). So people in this city tend to go to the better hospital and this threatens the poorer-performing hospital.

Laura then goes on to write: 

Ah, says Steve (a very nice guy, by the way, who I met at a meeting in Camden), in this example you’re talking about two traditional hospitals. In my example I’m talking about traditional schools that exist solely within the district bureaucracy, as opposed to renaissance schools, which have one foot in the bureaucracy and one in the non-traditional sector. Apples and oranges.

First of all, there is no need to concoct a completely facetious account of what I hypothetically argue. My email is on the Rutgers website and I’m active on twitter. Why put words in my mouth then argue with a straw man? If Laura had the courtesy to actually ask me about her hospital analogy, I would have told her that communities are often fiercely protective of their hospitals, and that often the “poorer” hospital is the one serving the poorest population (the community least likely to be able to pay). In contrast to Laura’s stereotyping of me as someone only interested in “academic exercise,” I actually participated in protests in New Orleans around this very issue. After Hurricane Katrina, Charity Hospital was closed, in part because it’s business model of serving low-income residents was not considered viable in the long-term. A new research hospital was to open which focused less on this non-profitable clientele. Sound familiar?

But this brings up my second, and bigger, problem with Laura’s hospital analogy. There was no need to concoct a tortured conversation about a hypothetical hospital at all, because two minutes of googling Camden hospitals would show that there is an actual fight over Camden’s hospitals right now. It’s hugely controversial, and involves many of the same actors as the school system. Here’s the basics (though the topic is complex and deserves its own post at some point) according to Newsworks:

A lower court last month ruled unconstitutional a law that was quickly pushed through the Legislature giving control of emergency medical services in Camden to Cooper University Health Care. But an appellate court put a hold on that ruling. The state Supreme Court will decide next week if that hold will remain in place.


But Mercer County Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Hurd ruled on December 22 that the law was unconstitutional because it “affords privileges to some but not to others” without a rational basis. Opponents of the law pointed it to an example of a health system, led by powerful Cooper Chairman George Norcross, bypassing the state’s long-established Certificate of Need system for determining which hospitals provide paramedic services. Supporters of the law say it will lead to better coordination of patient care in Camden.

Here we have a politically-connected hospital receiving favorable legislation to take business from (and potentially, put out of business) another hospital in the area. Kind of like the hypothetical example above, except it’s actually happening. Not coincidentally, the Cooper Hospital chairman is actually one of the largest pro-Renaissance supporters — the first KIPP school in Camden is named after him. There was no need for a tortured analogy about what I might have said about a hypothetical hospital conflict when there is a real one in which we see the same actors use targeted legislation and local power to favor one hospital over another.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s exactly what’s happening here in the educational sphere in Camden City. The Urban Hope Act established Renaissance schools, which are only used in Camden (no other qualifying district uses the legislation). When the first Renaissance school was voted down by the (mayorally appointed) Board of Education, every “no” vote was removed from that board. Political power is being used to put a “thumb on the scale” of certain policies — both in health care and in education. You can say that and still have an intelligent discussion about if those are good policies, but there’s little doubt that the thumb is on the scale. 

Laura then goes on to claim that I’m not making an argument about parents, then cites a recent petition for a new Mastery High School: 

Last February, for example, over 50 parents marched to a Camden School Board meeting to present Superintendent Rouhanifard with a petition signed by over 850 parents demanding more seats at Mastery’s renaissance schools.

In doing so, Laura is proving my actual point, which is that we need to understand what’s happening in Camden in light of power dynamics there, and that the District routinely interprets parental action (and other information) in the way most favorable to their own policy preferences. Laura is making the same mistake. She trumpets 850 parents demanding more Mastery seats. But she doesn’t mentioned the signature campaign to keep McGraw open (rather than convert it to a Renaissance School), which garnered over 200 signatures from a much smaller pool of potential parents. Or when hundreds upon hundreds of Camden high school students protested in front of the Board of Education against the firing of local teachers or the closing of their schools. Similarly, Laura makes no mention of the over 800 signatures gathered this summer to put the issue of whether Camden’s Board of Education should be democratically elected (that effort ultimately fell short of the approximately 1,300 needed to get on the ballot, but I’m told will likely be attempted again this summer). These examples don’t show definitive proof that Camden is opposing charters, but that’s the point. Understanding these examples requires local context, which Laura is woefully unaware of. That is likely because she’s dependent upon charter schools PR offices and the school district for information, and the information that comes from those camps is designed to support their proposed policy fixes. Eight-hundred signatures is only sufficient to spark a policy change if it supports a pre-existing agenda. I’ve repeatedly asked the District to set up basic standards regarding petitions (for closing a school, opening a school or anything else) but they refuse. It is too convenient to use some parents signatures as cover for a set of policies that was happening no matter what, and to ignore others that disagree. The district has never voluntarily set up any accountability system for its own decision-making process to address such token participation.

Photo by April Saul in her collection Camden, NJ: A Spirit Invincible. Check out her facebook page.

That’s why I’m tired of this moralizing about what’s good for kids, or being told that parents favor one set of policies (i.e. choice) while systematically constraining those same parents from voting on policy issues and choosing the broader context in which those choices will be made. School choice in Camden is constructed, and it’s explicitly constructed with a single outcome in mind — that’s the whole point of taking over a district. If it was what parents wanted, why take over the district in the first place?

I started this blog because I truly believe that Local Knowledge matters. Context is critical to understanding what happens here. Which is why Laura should join us at the monthly Camden Supper Club Joseph Russell and I organize here in the city. Or, to share a drink at the new rum distillery in downtown Camden. Because without local perspectives, it’s near impossible to truly understand the complexities of local politics and the way they constrain and influence local choice; parents have to make choices in a constructed system, and it’s unjust to tell them they can only participate at the level of school choice, while disempowering them from participating in the wider construction of the system. Oh, and Laura, the first round is on me — I have a reputation for being a hoot at a cocktail party and I don’t want to disappoint.



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