It’s my 7th year as both a Rutgers professor and as a resident of Camden. A lot of the time, the local policy and political scene feels familiar. But this Fall, something completely new (to me) is happening in Camden. Residents are getting a chance to vote for their board of education. On November 5th, Camden votes. Then what happens?

First, the basics. Since I’ve been in Camden, Camden has been the least democratic school system in the country. The board was appointed, not elected (a secondary aspect of the MRERA legislation in the early 2000s), that board had no power over the local school system (because starting in 2012, the state took over the school district, stripping the board of its power over the system), and many schools and students functioned outside of the bounds of the school district anyway because of the rapid growth of charter/renaissance schools. In other words, Camden works in a way unique to a handful of poor districts of color — residents have little direct impact over how the system is run (note: I didn’t say none. Education issues are part of the wider mayoral elections, the school superintendents who have state-appointed control over the system have listening tours, charter/renaissance schools have their own boards, and there is that whole “voting with your feet” thing, as flawed as it may be). 

Camden could not vote directly for its school board until a 2018 court case that ruled that the issue would appear on the ballot. Until, in a November vote last year, a coalition of residents along with the local and state teachers union won that vote. On November 5th this year, for the first time in almost two decades, Camden residents will vote to elect their school board. 

The district will still be under state control, and elected school board members won’t have any power over district schools (much less charter/renaissance schools), but for those who have engaged in decades of activism around schools, this is a critical step towards democracy. So what can we expect? 

  1. A sharp divide on policy. There appear to be two main slates of candidates for school board. The local party’s slate is the “Education for Everyone” slate, while the coalition that fought for a democratic school board is running under the slogan “Camden Votes.” These campaigns are just getting off the ground (and we’ll be sure to cover them here as they do), but I imagine we’ll hear familiar arguments. From the “Education for Everyone” folks, they’ll emphasize progress in the city, the ways education reform and school choice have played into that, and point to new schools. The “Camden Votes” community will focus on what’s lost to community when public schools are closed or weakened, the lack of financial and special education accountability that comes with charterization, and point out that reforms were built on the back of taking away the right to vote from Camden residents.
  2. What is democracy really? One of the subtle undertones of this election is the question of what real democracy in Camden looks like. Elections in New Jersey are dominated by “the line”. Here’s a quick primer on the concept. Basically, the way the ballot is laid out gives a significant advantage to local candidates affiliated with the party (and the big names running for higher office). The fact that one button can often vote for both popular Senator Cory Booker and the rest of the approved slate of local candidates is a significant challenge for progressive groups to overcome. But school board elections are nonpartisan, meaning they don’t happen on the line. Prior to the changes that led to appointed school board members, school board elections were one of the most vulnerable elected positions in Camden. Folks like Jose Delgado were mainstays on the school board without party support. That points to an optimistic take on this election. But I think there are folks who are overestimating the power of the coalition. In the ballot issue regarding the school board, for the first time, the local party was facing not even a neutral case, but an uphill battle to keep the school board appointed. On its face, few residents would be willing to vote to strip themselves of the right to vote. This election lacks that advantage, and will depend far more on the infrastructure and get-out-the-vote operations of both candidates. That’s likely to be an advantage for the “Education for Everyone” slate, though not an impossible one to overcome. 

  3. Does the tax subsidy kerfuffle  matter? Over the past few months, the local democratic party has been repeatedly bloodied over the tax subsidies program. Much of that discussion has focused on Camden. There’s a clear coalition building between local activists who have long criticized the party from the left, and the Murphy administration which has been in a power struggle with South Jersey Democrats. What’s less clear is the success that effort has had building on-the-ground coalitions that can execute the meat-and-potatoes of elections. The Camden school board election will be a type of test for that idea — and a challenging one. It’s easier to imagine this type of strategy working in highly progressive areas like Collingswood. That’s not exactly the coalition or the case in Camden, and it will be interesting to watch activists try to connect the dots. 

  4. And lastly, here’s the Camden Votes slate and early campaign material for those who are curious:

Posted by Elton Custis Blackahmoore on Monday, September 2, 2019


  • As an active Camden Resident and a Candidate of the Camden Votes slate, it was a pleasure reading this article! Thank you for briefing some of our issues, as well as, being detail oriented in your delivery.

    Looking forward to more of your coverage!

  • I think you are oversimplifying the issues in Camden. Democracy was never supposed to be available to everyone. The framers of the Constitution meant for voting to be availed to their perception of the most learned people of their time. Unfortunately, they thought it was only white men.

    We now have a democracy where everyone demands to be heard without regard for how informed their opinions are. Uniformed people going to the polls is just as bad as not having a vote.

    The Camden paradox is the fact that the democracy you want to see in Camden is how we go to a place where democracy has been stripped away.

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