Growing up, I was taught by my parents to do the right thing, to be responsible, and to hold myself accountable, values that were reinforced by my grade school teachers in the city of Camden, New Jersey.
I often think back to those early lessons as I reflect upon the current state of public education in Camden, where policymakers have chosen to shift the burden of educating the city’s Black and Latinx students to private entities. I am sure those folks would argue the decision to expand school privatization in Camden is proof of their dedication to the students and families of the city. I beg to differ. As I see it, by shifting the responsibility of educating the city’s children to private entities, they’re absolving themselves of a burden owed to Black and Latinx taxpayers.
Twenty years ago, the Camden City School District (CCSD) had a total enrollment of more than 17,000 students housed in over 30 schools. Today, due to New Jersey’s decision to close CCSD schools and offer charter schools as an alternative, enrollment in CCSD is a little more than 6,300 in fewer than 20 schools.
To be clear, charter schools have existed in Camden City since 1996. The precipitous decline in district enrollment is thanks to the state, which took over the Camden City schools then passed legislation allowing charter management organizations (CMOs)—called Renaissance Schools—to run “failing” schools.
Reformers have lauded the takeover and the expansion of charter schools, citing data that shows Camden charter school students exhibiting higher growth on test scores compared to students in the city’s traditional public schools. They don’t mention the price students have paid for these test score gains, including soaring suspension rates at schools using controversial “no excuses” discipline models. And they fail to acknowledge what Camden has lost.
After the takeover of CCSD and the passage of the Urban Hope Act, hundreds of district employees were laid off. Eleven schools have been closed, most converted to charter schools. And the number of Black educators has declined precipitously.
Then there are the political costs to the residents of this city. The hard truth is that policymakers have abdicated their responsibility to Black and Brown taxpayers in Camden, taking away their electoral power and their schools in the process.
It’s an all-too-familiar story in New Jersey’s cities.
Before the takeover of Camden schools, the state took over school districts in Jersey City in 1989, Paterson in 1991, and Newark in 1995─all are districts where Black and Latinx students make up the majority. These communities have also seen the dramatic expansion of charter schools post takeover. Nearly 40% of the charter schools in the state are located in these three cities.
In fact, you can find a similar dynamic in virtually any city these days. In municipalities including Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, charter schools are replacing traditional public schools, erasing local voices in the process. The decision of how local dollars are spent is no longer under local control. And because charter school boards are privately selected, not elected, the public has no say in how the community’s schools are run.
Too often, this erosion of local authority is aided and abetted by state lawmakers who enact laws that enable unilateral decisions that are designed to evade their responsibility to Black and Latinx taxpayers. In fact, we know from research that the communities most likely to be targeted for takeover are those that have demanded more resources.
You don’t see school takeovers and privatization happening in affluent white school districts. That’s because residents and taxpayers in these communities would never allow the state to abdicate its responsibility to educate their children.
Neither should people of color.
To be clear, I don’t begrudge parents of color for sending their children to charter schools. But the state has a responsibility to educate Black and Latinx children rather than passing the responsibility off to privately-run organizations.
School privatization lets the state off the hook for all of its responsibilities, including ensuring that our schools are adequately funded, that they employ teachers that represent the students they serve, and that our children are taught an honest version of their own history and the history of the United States.
That’s where our tax dollars should be going.
Rann Miller is Director of Anti-Bias and DEI Initiatives as well as a high school Social Studies teacher for a school district located in Southern New Jersey. He’s also a freelance writer and founder of the Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ and Instagram @urbanedmixtape.