Once you've heard from them, you can, if you wish, subject yourself to the opinions of white suburbanites like me -- or Laura Waters:
Yes, it does have to change. Perhaps we could start by addressing the fact that Camden has the lowest per capita income in the state. Or that it has the highest crime rate in the country, a direct result of its current status as an economic wasteland. Or that the economic development that has come into the city is controlled by outsiders and mostly benefits those outsiders, and not the citizens of the city.Every day in Camden, New Jersey, students wake up with just over a 50 percent chance of earning a high school diploma.This is reality. It is negligence on the part of a school system that has failed families for decades. It has to change.
You won't hear about this reality when listening to folks like Waters; no, it's the "negligence on the part of a school system that has failed families for decades" that is the problem. Of course, that school system has been, for all intents and purposes, run by the state for over a decade, and any dissent expressed against the South Jersey political machine is simply not tolerated.
It's worth pointing out that Waters is the vice-president of the Lawrence Township Board of Education out in the leafy 'burbs of Mercer County. Had the taxpayers in Waters's town been told that they would have no say in the governance of their schools, there would undoubtedly be an uproar.
But let's save those comparisons for a bit longer, and get back to Waters's prescriptions for what ails Camden:
But over the past year—for the first time in decades—there is real cause for hope for Camden's students. The State of New Jersey has finally lived up to its moral obligation to take action and appointed a new district leader in Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. A child of Iranian immigrants who fled to this country to escape religious persecution, Rouhanifard has unveiled and begun to deliver on a bold and aggressive plan—The Camden Commitment—to dramatically improve the quality of education for all students in Camden.That is a rather selective history of Rouhanifard's childhood: Waters apparently doesn't know (or doesn't care to share) that Camden's superintendent, once his family emigrated to America, attended one of the most elite and high-spending prep schools in Tennessee -- a school that spends over $40,000 per pupil.
I must have missed the part of the Camden Commitment that called for funding Camden's schools at an equivalent rate. Of course, the good people of Camden have been promised more resources -- like a new school at Lanning Square -- for years. That school was supposed to serve all of the children of Camden, but the powers-that-be decided funding for such things are reserved only for the suburbs.
What Camden got instead are Renaissance Schools, which will be run by private charter school operators who have no obligation to hold to the same standards of transparency and parental rights as public schools.
Those same operators, by the way, have a history of segregation and high rates of student attrition in New Jersey. And they engage in a pedagogy of compliance that simply wouldn't be tolerated by the more affluent parents out in the 'burbs:
Between classes, teachers stand in the hallways ushering students along. Tardiness is not tolerated. Students wear lanyards with cards recording their demerits, including those for lateness. Too many demerits result in a one-hour detention after school. [emphasis mine]Hey, if shaming students is good enough for Camden and Philadelphia, why not bring it to suburbs like Lawrence? How about it, Laura? Or do you think the schools where parents of color send their children should be fundamentally different from suburban schools?
Education advocates who recognize the urgency of need in Camden typically don't get bogged down talking about bureaucratic processes. In fact, by even taking the time to address these ridiculous claims, we're ceding the higher ground to defenders of a failed bureaucracy, those like Julia Sass Rubin. We're talking about whether x person did y thing in order to comply with z regulation. We're not talking about the reality that Camden students face every day or that next fall several hundred Camden children will get to attend better schools.Oh, I see: standards of transparency and engaging in democratic processes are privileges enjoyed by some parents and citizens. Following the law, according to reformy folks like Waters, is a luxury the good people of Camden simply can't afford.
Instead, Camden's families have to settle for a phony market system of schools, run by unaccountable operators who have questionable records and political connections, who have never demonstrated they can achieve results any better than the public schools when accounting for differences in student characteristics.
I will let Julia Sass Rubin answer Waters's specific rebuttals of her piece. Let me, instead, end with this observation:
In Camden, and Paterson, and Newark, and Jersey City -- and, for that matter, in New York City and Detroit and New Orleans and Los Angeles and Chicago and in cities all over the country -- the school privatizers, like Waters, have argued that school "choice" is somehow equivalent to democratic control of schools. It is not.
The hard-working citizens of Camden have not had control of their schools or their city for years. The critical decisions that affect their children's lives have been made by political and economic powers that have little to no connection to their city. They didn't make the decision to charterize their school district -- that decision was made for them.
And anyone who pretends they don't know why is lying to themselves.
If the people of Camden want to debate whether that they should have a "choice" system of schools that leeches resources from its public schools and segregates their children by special education need (among other ways), let them have that debate. But let's not pretend that "voting with your feet" is the same thing as democracy.
The people of Lawrence wouldn't put up with that -- why should the people of Camden?
Democracy for me, not for thee...