Christie’s charter school nightmare: “White flight, and they’re bankrupting us”

“We are creating separate but equal school systems,” Hoboken school board president warns Salon

Topics: ed reform, Education, Chris Christie, hoboken, Leon Gold, Dawn Zimmer, Charter schools, Editor's Picks, New Jersey, GOP, , , ,

Christie's charter school nightmare: "White flight, and they’re bankrupting us"Chris Christie (Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie deals with burgeoning scandals surrounding accusations he used the Port Authority and development deals for political ends, he now finds himself in a flap surrounding charter schools in Hoboken.

As charters in the city have exploded in number and size, “they’re fostering white flight, and they’re bankrupting us,” the city’s school board head charged in a Wednesday interview. “We are creating separate but equal school systems,” warned Hoboken Board of Education president Leon Gold. (As Salon has reported, Christie-style ed reform has also sparked controversy in Newark.)

Gold, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science, decried the Christie administration’s approval of the HoLa charter school’s bid to add middle school grades, which was opposed by the city’s superintendent. (Gold emphasized that he is speaking in a personal capacity, and not on behalf of the entire Board of Education.) State data shows that 11 percent of HoLa students qualify for reduced-cost or free lunch, whereas 72 percent of their counterparts in Hoboken’s traditional public schools do, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. Ninety percent of charter enrollment costs are paid by the Hoboken school district.

Asked about Gold’s arguments, a Christie spokesperson referred Salon to Education Department spokesperson Michael Yaple, who cited a letter from HoLa president Barbara Martinez, which Yaple said explains “the school’s aggressive outreach efforts and how the school’s demographics reflect the neighborhood.” (“I myself have knocked on doors in public housing” to offer info to parents, Martinez said elsewhere.) Yaple also cited “an insightful piece” backing the HoLa expansion by the Newark Star-Ledger editorial board, and said that his agency considers factors including “a review of performance data, academic trends, financial reports, and information gleaned from site visits, classroom observations, and interviews with stakeholders.”

By capping property taxes and fueling charter expansion, countered Gold, Christie “is increasing the segregatory effect of charter schools, while raiding our budget.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.

In December, Hoboken’s superintendent wrote to Chris Christie’s ed commissioner that he had “sometimes wondered if the Hoboken Public School District is a part of some inevitable plan, because at this point the stage has been set, and many of the strategies” a former assistant commissioner “described for breaking down traditional public schools in favor of charters are working as he predicted.” Is that what you see happening in Hoboken?

Exactly. And the recent decision to grant a charter expansion to the charter school HoLa is a perfect example of that …

There are two considerations that the state is supposed to consider: the financial impact on the Hoboken public schools, and the segregatory effect … increasing the segregation.

There’s a chart …  the Hoboken demographic composition of charter schools, versus the whole district, that shows the complete adverse impact …

We’re being hurt by increasing white flight from our school system [to charters], and we’re being strangled financially: Because of the [tax] cap that they put on in Jersey, we can’t even pay the amount of money that we will have to pay out from local tax levy, to support the charter school expansion.

And they are actually starving us; we are going to have to engage in layoffs now because of this … Hoboken is this incredible nexus, where everything wrong about charter schools [and] about funding all comes together …

The Hoboken school system … was a nepotism mill. And in order to fight that, a charter school was created. The Elysian and Hoboken charter schools were created for exactly the right reason. [But] now that reform has taken over the public school systems … HoLa has now become an alternative, in my opinion, white flight school …

And we’re sensitive to this: never be between a parent and their child, between a Hoboken official and money, and between, you know, Schumer and a camera.

But … HoLa has become a white flight school.

The Newark Star-Ledger editorial Bboard wrote, “The answer is not to slam the brakes on a successful school. The answer is to lure more poor students to HoLa, something HoLa is eager to do.” Why do you disagree?

Well, they had five years to do it in. We don’t see it. And the fact is, they are being a bit disingenuous when you read about their school board president … she is a paid activist for charter organizations. I feel that the school would not be as attractive [to others] if they did more recruiting from the Housing Authority [residents, as she pledged to do].

They say their hands are tied. They hide behind the lottery … “Random” is not random [if] you put a few biases in the system. For example … you have to go out and go through the effort to sign up … If you have a child … your second child is automatically included …

Please make this clear … I do not believe they are doing this intentionally — or I can’t prove it.  I do believe, though, that there are systemic problems with their lottery and recruitment that cause the kind of adverse impact that happens. I am accusing none of them of being racist … I’m saying these numbers speak for themselves, and in fact there’s this huge disparity …

The charter schools argue that their obligation is to represent the demographics of the city, which they do. But … their obligation is to represent the demographics of the school-age population.

Supporters of charter schools have sometimes argued that offering a charter is a way to keep parents within the public school system who would otherwise just go to private school – or as some of the HoLa parents have suggested, leave the city entirely.

They knew what they were getting in for when they moved to Hoboken. It was reflected in the real estate prices …

Initially, there was a need for the charter schools in Hoboken. The fact is, we have three of them. If we left them at two, that would’ve been perfect … But essentially, the expansion of HoLa from 245 students to eventually 405 students is bankrupting us …

I would have no qualms at all if the state said, “We are going to fund these charter schools.” I would feel bad that they’re lacking diversity. I would feel bad that they’re not becoming part of the Hoboken culture. But if the state would fund [them], that’s great. But don’t take from poor students and give to the more affluent students …

I believe that the initial charter schools in Hoboken shook a lot of people up, and I personally had no problem with it. They have just reached a critical mass now, that they’re fostering white flight, and they’re bankrupting us …

The private school parents are great. They’re paying taxes, and they’re taking responsibility for themselves … But the fact is, when you want … local funds to subsidize what in some cases is essentially a private school, it just goes against, I think, the intent of public education.

When you say “essentially” in some [cases] is “a private school” – how so?

When you have massive fundraising drives where you can raise $100,000 … I wish the public school system had as much money to devote toward our children as at least one of the charter schools does …

They have tutoring … These parents are wonderful — they’re the best of the best. So in fact, I view them as a private school that puts [a] significant amount of their own money into it, while getting funds from the city …

They have the best of both worlds: They have some very, very active parents, involved parents, motivated parents …  And they have these incredible fundraisers. And they’re also able to get money from us …

Their demographic mix is certainly interesting, and their class – if I could use the word — classist mix, is certainly interesting.

How would you characterize that mix?

Some of the best and the brightest of Hoboken choose to send their kids there. And it’s a loss for us — both in terms of our demographic mix, and it’s frankly a loss in terms of the students …

They’ve created an alternative school system …

I have parents … desperate to find an ACL[U] lawyer to try to appeal this under Brown v. Board of Education. We have a group of people that realize that the Christie administration — with the compliance or the complicity of so-called liberals — are against us. For example, [Mayor] Dawn Zimmer.

Where is Hoboken relative to the intent of Brown v. Board of Education?

We are creating separate but equal school systems …

Nobody’s saying they’re doing this on purpose. Because that’s why the mayor and everybody’s against us — they think we’re accusing them of being racists. No. You have a system that has been designed — that can only produce these kinds of results in Hoboken …

Hoboken is actually … a great test case, because it’s not black against black … We have a case in Hoboken where in fact the charter schools have become a white flight school.

Dawn Zimmer – what role has she played in this situation?

A very poor, bad role …

I just got reelected to the school board, and we were running together. HoLa wanted an expansion, and HoLa wanted our City Council people to write letters, and the mayor. We begged Dawn, “Don’t write a letter” … We have tried to explain to her what the financial impact would be …

But the HoLa parents are so organized — and they represent, again, the richest and the brightest of Hoboken — that they talked her into writing a letter in support of HoLa. They also talked a civil rights attorney [into it] …

A New York schoolteacher … who’s against charter schools in New York, wrote a letter in favor … Then we have … “Old Hoboken” [politicos] … I would expect to just be political opportunists …

Eleven officials … backed the HoLa expansion. And it was a really interesting combination of people who really don’t like each other … [They] showed a complete disregard for public education in Hoboken.

How much of the situation in Hoboken is the responsibility of Gov. Christie?

I think most of it …

He’s trying to cut the head off of the leadership, through his cap on superintendent salary. By limiting the [local] tax increase to 2 percent — 2 percent cap — he’s preventing us from funding it.

By [his education commissioner] granting [charter] school extensions, he is increasing the segregatory effect of charter schools, while raiding our budget. So I put this directly at the feet of Christie … In terms of the health of the public school system, it’s Christie all the way.

What is the impact of these decisions on Hoboken as a city?

We’re going to have to raise taxes. We are going to have to fire teachers. We’re turning parents against one another.

This is a small, wonderful town. I mean, I’m afraid what you’re going to write, because my dearest friends send their kids to charter schools … I really hope they don’t say, “Leon, you’re calling us racists.” So please, I’m not calling them racists. I’m saying the effect of the charter schools result in that because of the lottery system …

I just am so convinced that Hoboken represents everything wrong with the charter school system. It’s a charter school system gone totally astray.

On the other hand Hoboken is the perfect community that I think United States should be. It’s a group of vibrant people who talk to one another, with a vast range of economic and demographic differences. Hoboken is wonderful, and the crime is that this thing is actually tearing us apart. I campaigned with the mayor; I don’t even want to look at her now. She campaigned with me;  I’m sure she’s livid with me now, and the school board.

This should not happen. I thought of us as all [for] reform, and it’s tearing apart reform …

It’s stealing from our public school education. If Christie wanted to fund them completely through state aid, great … “School choice” … they’ve increased it for the charter schools, and reduced it for us …

This is a Brown v. Board of Education [issue], and it’s also a funding issue … starving a school system and transferring wealth [from] the underprivileged to the more privileged …

From 245 to 405 [HoLa students] will eventually be $1,800,000 a year we have to come up with. And remember, a 1 percent tax increase for us is only $300,000. How do you keep under a 2 percent cap with that?

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