There’s a new normal in Camden. Advertisements for charter schools at bus stops. Jockeying over buildings as schools close. Whispers that schools are sorting into a pecking order. Even a group of charter schools opting out of the universal enrollment program, and facing fierce criticism from the school district. While the pace of school closures, firings, and turnover has slowed, what has emerged is a new normal that has consequences: an every day competition for students.
I think it’s particularly important to document and discuss the mundane elements of schools competitions for students, in part because so often the calculus that competition will improve education is abstract. Talking about how competition influences students, parents and schools puts a face to the pros and cons of competition.
Some of the results of such competition are familiar. There is a group of parents here, Parents for Great Camden Schools, that believe and advocate for the idea that parents need options and school choice provides them more opportunities to find a better education. There’s also growing evidence from throughout the state that choice leads to increased segregation across race, special education, and English Language learners in districts with charter schools. Here in Camden, we’re starting to feel the weight of some of these big picture trends.
First, as more schools have been opened than closed, there is a glut of open seats, and fierce competition to attract students. Charters have the leg up here: they can allocate budgets for recruitment in a way district schools haven’t traditionally done. Thus, the regular fliers, billboards, and bus stop sign campaigns that are prevalent throughout the city.
The school district, rightfully realizing that their own schools were at a terrible disadvantage in such a system, allocated funding to create videos for recruitment to district schools. Here’s one from Henry H. Davis Family School:
Here’s a link to the set of #repmyschool videos that came about as a result of that effort by the district. These videos are progress, and kudos to the district for realizing that the jargon of “competition” required action. But even with a few hundred dollars per school dedicated towards recruitment, district schools are still at a significant disadvantage. Part of that disadvantage is that district leadership acts in ways that its competitors never would. You will never find a Charter Management Organization such as KIPP, Mastery or Uncommon voluntarily close its own school doors. When district leadership sees its role as “increasing quality seats” rather than advocating for and protecting the schools it governs, it puts these schools at a severe disadvantage.
The Camden Education Association — Camden’s teachers union — has stepped into that gap. While we don’t have to look very far to see fraught relationships between unions and communities of color (the Philly police union calling black lives matter activists a “pack of rabid animals” being a particularly distasteful example), in Camden things are playing out somewhat different. Teacher, parent, resident and activist Keith Eric Benson (not to be confused with his father, Keith Errol Benson) won the CEA Presidency, and has started a campaign to publicize Camden’s District Schools by going into these schools and sharing photographs. Here’s his posts about H.B. Wilson:
Good Afternoon Centerville and Fairview Parents! Did you know how excellent a school you have in HB WILSON FAMILY…Posted by Keith Eric on Monday, July 17, 2017
And here are links to Creative Arts, the Early Childhood Development Center, Woodrow Wilson HS, Coopers Poynt Family School, and Cream Family School. Benson is a big advocate for teachers to play a role in the communities in which they teach, and it’s powerful to see that manifested in this campaign.
It’s also important because there just aren’t many positive portrayals of public schools. So often, the narrative surrounding public schools focuses on their deficits: the age of their buildings, the uphill battle of getting good test scores with challenging populations, issues of race, class and discipline. Over time, this seeps into a wider narrative of “failed” institutions. I didn’t realize until I saw these inspirational photographs of clean hallways, uplifting displays and more, how much that narrative had become a part of my own thoughts about these schools. It’s great to see a campaign that portrays the other side of district schools; the side with dedicated professionals striving to create positive learning environments.
Amidst this wider competition, you are starting to hear rumblings about resentment from parents who are tired of being constantly recruited to change schools. At Camden Parents Union events over the summer (they are participating in Journey for Justice’s #WeChoose campaign), I heard stories about students who have had multiple schools closed on them, parents frustrated that their dinners are repeatedly disrupted by charter employees knocking on doors and trying to convince them to switch schools, and even one case where a group of students tried to negotiate with the school district to have charters stop putting up advertisements outside their schools and stop recruiting in their neighborhoods — they saw the recruiting as disrespectful of their school and teachers, and predatory.
This is a side of education competition we rarely talk about. There’s a human response to the constant recruitment. It makes parents feel like there might be something wrong with the school they’re in. It makes students feel their schools are not supported. And at times it feels like some schools are the “chosen” ones while others are going to be picked at until they’ve lost enough population to be closed. For the educators and students trying to do important work in those schools, there’s a natural feeling of abandonment.
I’m starting to hear whispers that charter schools are feeling the same abandonment. Now-closed charters such as Camden Community Charter and City Invincible Charter immediately alleged politics when they were closed after only a few years in the city. But other schools worry that they’re becoming depositories of the students unwanted by the schools consider more exclusive or prestigious. There’s a fair bit of irony to charters making this complaint; for years, similar complaints by district schools have been ignored. But it shows that competition may lead to sorting, and that even charter schools may find themselves at a lower run in the pecking order. Those schools don’t have the luxury of kicking out students that don’t “fit their school culture” and are forced to take any student or risk closure for low numbers (just like district schools have been for some time).
The next round of this competition is starting to take shape, as schools jockey to be seen as elite. That’s playing out in a particular way at the LEAP schools. I often don’t write about LEAP — they’re run by a colleague — but I think the fight between LEAP and the school district over enrollment policy is a particularly important one. LEAP has balked at playing the enrollment game at an alleged disadvantage; under the state’s charter law they receive less funding than the newer renaissance schools, and they worry that with such a clear preference by the district for renaissance schools, they’re getting the short end of the stick with the new universal enrollment program. This fall, they became the first school to attempt to leave that program. The district responded with a letter to the Department of Education that alleged enrollment violations which was subsequently leaked to the press.
The fight is particularly important because competition is so deeply engrained into the conflict. For LEAP, this was about not having a level playing field. But it is also a bet that being outside of the system would be seen as being prestigious (a strategy LEAP was successful with when it became the city’s first charter school). Charters have long depended on the prestige of being the “different” option, something that parents seek out, and can benefit from peer effects of like-minded parents choosing the “more prestigious” option. Opting out of the universal enrollment process may make it harder for LEAP to find students, but it may single out LEAP as the more prestigious schools. For the district, this was about the opposite — a school trying to get a competitive edge through alleged unfair practices.
That is the new normal in Camden, where schools are competing, the district sees itself as arbiter, the unions are doing publicity campaigns for district schools, all while parents, students and educators try to make the best decisions for their families and communities.