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The Small-Town Charter Wars

The fight to stop the growth of a charter school in one small New Jersey town.

Big cities like Chicago, New York, and Atlanta get most of the headlines in the education reform wars. But smaller school districts experience equally fierce battles. And just like in the big ones, the assault on community-controlled public schools often comes in the form of charter schools.

Charter schools are privately controlled schools funded by public dollars. They are often exempted from district regulations concerning everything from school admissions (unlike public schools, charters do not have to admit all neighborhood children) to teacher workload (most charters aren’t covered by union contracts).

This lack of regulation has led to widespread corruption, as well as tremendous instability. A 2013 New York Times investigation found that while teachers in traditional public schools have an average of fourteen years of experience, “charter networks are developing what amounts to a youth cult in which teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable.”

There’s also little data to support the claim that charters provide a better education than public schools. In fact, a 2013 study of charter schools nationwide by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that the majority of charters don’t offer any academic benefits over neighborhood public schools — regardless of the subject.

In math, only 7 percent of charter schools were superior to a matched traditional public school, while 37 percent were inferior. In reading, 56 percent of charter schools offered no advantage, while 19 percent performed worse than neighborhood public schools.

But the data hasn’t deterred charter school advocates, who continue to push for an “educational market.” Right now, in the town of Red Bank, New Jersey (population 12,200), parents, teachers, and students are fighting a charter school attack on their neighborhood schools.

The Battle of Red Bank

The Red Bank Charter School, founded in 1997, recently petitioned the state to double its enrollment over the next three years, from 200 to 400 students. That may sound like small potatoes, but in a town with less than 1,500 public school students, such a shift of resources could have a seismic effect on the community’s neighborhood schools.

Joan McLaughlin, a twenty-nine-year veteran teacher at Red Bank Primary School, believes the charter expansion and diversion of public dollars would have a huge impact on her students: “We’re going to lose programs that benefit children,” McLaughlin says. “We’re going to lose enrichment opportunities.”

James Pierson, a lifelong resident of Red Bank who teaches seventh grade social studies in Red Bank community schools, agrees. He argues a larger charter school would have a “devastating effect, ” jeopardizing both academic programs and teachers’ jobs.

Luigi Laugelli, principal of Red Bank Primary School, echoes these concerns: “Classes will get larger. We’ll have to cut the bulk of athletics, band, and chorus. . . . We’ll just be down to the core basics.”

School resources aren’t the only thing charter schools siphon off from community schools. They also take students.

In Red Bank, the charter’s presence has created one of the most segregated school districts in New Jersey. Red Bank Charter School’s student body is over 50 percent white, versus 7 percent for Red Bank Borough Public Schools. Ninety percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced lunch, whereas just 40 percent of charter school students do. Finally, 80 percent of Red Bank Public School students are Latino, compared to 34 percent at the charter school, and 44 percent of Red Bank community school students are learning English as a second language, compared to only 4 percent of charter school students.

Such segregation is typical in communities that welcome charter schools. A 2015 report found that in North Carolina, introducing charter schools had become a de facto path to resegregation. As one of the report’s authors explained, “They appear pretty clearly to be a way for white students to get out of more racially integrated schools.”

In addition to segregating schools by race, a 2011 study showed that charters stratify students by class and parental income, and that “a substantial share” may exclude English Language Learners.

Laugelli has seen a similar trend in Red Bank, where parents have told him they avoid the public schools because they don’t think their children will be academically challenged in an environment where some students don’t speak English. Pierson says the proposed charter school expansion would “deepen the segregation of our schools and divide the community as a whole.”

Because they skirt many of the rules governing public schools, charters can also avoid serving students with disabilities ranging from autism and attention deficit disorder to emotional disturbances. In one high-profile example, New York’s Success Academy charter school chain allegedly refused to provide federally mandated services for students with disabilities and pressured parents to transfer their children back into public schools.

Public schools like Red Bank Primary, on the other hand, serve every student. At that school alone, Laugelli says, there are three self-contained classes for students with serious disabilities; Red Bank Charter is only equipped to educate students with “mild disabilities.”

For many in the community, that’s not good enough.

In reaction to the charter school’s expansion bid, parents and teachers have launched an organizing campaign. Jill Burden, who has two children in Red Bank public schools, told me an anti–charter school effort that began with just five parents has grown into an unprecedented show of solidarity. On January 13, hundreds of parents marched to a Borough Council meeting to protest the proposed expansion — and demand full funding for Red Bank public schools.

Burden attributed some of the organizing success to the increased involvement of Red Bank’s Latino community. This hasn’t happened by accident — parents worked diligently to involve Red Bank’s Spanish-speaking population by translating organizing materials and providing translation services.

While the Red Bank district suffered from a bad reputation decades ago, McLaughlin said, these days parents are “proud of their schools.” Laugelli agreed, noting that Red Bank Public Schools have become centers of community life: “We have events with easily one thousand people attending. We have a harvest festival, a winter ball, movie nights. We’re deeply engaged with the community.”

The bulk of the charter school’s case for expansion rests not on community engagement, but on test scores, where charter students often outperform public school students. On the New Jersey State Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK), for example, 81 percent of Red Bank charter students scored proficient or better, compared with only 49 percent of Red Bank public school students.

Such comparisons are misleading, however — the student body of Red Bank’s charter school is not representative of the city’s population.

The State Versus the Schools

New Jersey charter school advocates have a staunch ally in the governor’s mansion. A fierce opponent of teachers unions, Governor Chris Christie said in his State of the State address last month that he would continue to “aggressively prioritize” charter schools.

In Red Bank, charter school officials admit Christie’s support is key to their plans to grow. At a January 20 meeting organized by charter school officials, Red Bank Charter School Principal Meredith Pennotti told parents that with less than two years left in Christie’s term, charter schools need to expand as quickly as possible and “take advantage of this opportunity.”

New Jersey Charter School Association President Nicole Cole agreed, saying, “In two years, when [Christie]’s gone, we may not have this opportunity . . . the time is now for your good schools to be looking at growing seats.”

Relying on a friendly governor may be a smart move for charter school advocates, since few communities in New Jersey are likely to clamor for charters after the recent debacle in Newark. In the state’s largest city, from 2009 to 2014, charter schools were given free rein over a vast swath of the public school landscape, along with a $100 million gift from Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg.

How did they fare? After five years, the schools showed no improvement. Two Rutgers University scholars found that “by 2014 . . . there are no differences in Newark students’ performance than students statewide and no gains made by Newark students compared to students statewide. On most assessments, from 2011 to 2014, Newark scores seem to flat-line or even drop.”

In addition to delivering disappointing gains, Newark’s charter takeover created tremendous instability in the city’s chronically underfunded school system. The takeover supplanted neighborhood school placements with a citywide lottery system, resulting in mass firings of teachers and school personnel. From 2011 to 2015, turnover rates among Newark school principals reached 60 percent. The US Department of Education is currently investigating seven separate civil rights violation complaints stemming from charter-driven proliferation.

The question now is, can Red Bank teachers and parents halt the growth of charters in their own city?

Like a lot of small towns and suburbs around the country, Red Bank entered the education reform wars with little fanfare. But shifting public resources to charter schools has the same impact in a town of ten thousand as it does in a city of ten million. Class sizes balloon, academic and enrichment programs get slashed, and the majority of students lose educational resources.

New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe is set to rule on the Red Bank Charter School expansion this month. Whatever the decision and whatever the political climate, however, Burden says public school supporters will keep up the pressure against privatization efforts. Confronted with the charter school’s grab for public dollars, Red Bank’s parents and teachers “have become one as a community.”