State Board Testimony 9-7-16


I am here today to tell you a little bit about Montclair’s unique all-magnet public school system, how and why it came to exist, and to explain why the proposed Montclair Charter School would undermine the shared values that drew virtually every Montclair resident to our town. As you may know, Montclair is rare among New Jersey communities in that it is both economically and racially diverse and its public school population – unlike, for example, that of neighboring West Orange – mirrors the community’s demographics.[i]

Back in the 1960s, more than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education became the law of the land, housing in Montclair was largely segregated, and Montclair’s public schools were still largely segregated as well.  Parents from the Black community sued, and the community tried forced busing and other ideas to integrate the schools. Forced busing did not go over well, and the community was trying to balance the need to integrate the schools with avoiding “white flight.”  A group of parents were looking for alternatives, and traveled to Trenton to sit down with NJDOE officials to try to come up with a compromise. Out of that meeting, our all-magnet school system was born.[ii]

In the 40 years since, Montclair has implemented an all-magnet school system that eliminated neighborhood schools completely.  That is, where I live in town has no direct correlation to where my kids attend school.  Instead, the year before my oldest started kindergarten, I traipsed through all of our elementary schools to tour the buildings, learn about the magnet themes, which range from Science & Technology to our public Montessori elementary school, and to see the schools and faculty in action. At kindergarten registration, I not only provided vaccination forms and proof of residency: I also ranked, in order of preference, the six elementary school options available for my daughter.

The magnet system provides all Montclair parents with school choice – that is, we all get to prioritize our preferences for which elementary and middle schools our children will attend.  More importantly, it keeps our public schools integrated.  In 2010, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Louisville and Seattle school integration cases,[iii] our district engaged the Kirwan Institute out of The Ohio State University to design a plan to keep our magnet system functioning within the parameters of the new, more restrictive law.[iv]  Kirwan’s report included a startling statistic: even in 2010, if Montclair were to revert to neighborhood schools, one of our elementary schools would be 92% white, and another would be 77% Black.[v] Instead, by supporting our magnet system, we have been able to ensure that all of our elementary schools are integrated.  My younger daughter attends the school that would be 77% Black, and instead it is far more reflective of our community as a whole, in that it is 35% Black, 45% white, and the remainder mixed race, Latino, and Asian.[vi]

To make our magnet system work, however, for four decades our community has made two expensive commitments: (1) to provide the resources in support of our magnet themes that will draw families to schools across town from their homes and (2) to provide the courtesy busing that makes the magnet system function.  First, each magnet school must have unique offerings to draw parents to list schools further from home as their top choices.  Our Science & Technology magnets have stand-alone greenhouses, and dedicated science and technology teachers.  Our arts magnets offer dedicated drama and dance teachers.  It is those “extras” that draw families to schools across town from their homes.  Second, because Montclair is 6 miles from north to south, with the historically white neighborhood at one end of town and the historically black neighborhood at the other end, we rely on busing to ensure that all kids have a real choice of which school to attend.

If this charter school were to be approved, we’d be forced to cut at least $3.1 million and upwards of $5 million or more from our public school budget.  Because of the governor’s property tax cap and Montclair’s already high property taxes, there is no question that we’d be forced to dramatically cut the district’s budget.  As we saw following the cuts to state aid in 2010, the go-to answers for decreasing Montclair’s budget are to (1) slash the magnet programs by closing schools and/or eliminating magnet theme resources and (2) reduce or eliminate courtesy busing.[vii]  Either would spell the end of our magnet system as we know it. Even if we give the charter the benefit of the doubt on its efficacy at recruiting equitably from all parts of our community, the budget-driven evisceration of our magnet system would effectively force the re-segregation of our public schools.  That is anathema to the values that drew us to Montclair.

Montclair is a unique community that is dedicated to its diverse, all-magnet public school system. Our schools aren’t perfect and there is room for improvement, but approving a charter school for Montclair would be like attempting to clip a hangnail with a chainsaw. As we’ve seen through the deluge of letters, emails, letters to the editor, and community outrage, virtually no one in our community – from students to seniors – wants or thinks we need this charter school.[viii]

Ninety-three percent of our school budget is directly funded by our local property taxes.  Since we have no local control over whether this charter opens, I am left to come here to beg you to use any and all influence you might have with the Commissioner to deny this charter application. Please do not force an unwanted, unneeded, destructive charter school on a public school system that is excellent although not perfect, but that is, nevertheless, the pride of our community.

Thank you.


[i] According to NJDOE statistics, Montclair High School is 48% white and 34% Black.  Montclair’s total population is 59% white and 32% Black.  West Orange High School is 19% white and 48% Black.  West Orange’s total population is 60% white and 26% Black.  See NJ School Performance Reports; U.S. Census Data.

[ii] See, e.g., S.S., a minor, by her guardians ad litem, J.A. & T.S. v. Montclair Bd. of Ed., 1997 WL 1038785 at *2 (EFPS Dec. 16, 1997), which recounts some of the history of Montclair’s desegregation litigation. The ALJ explained, “The circumstances which led to the instant litigation arose out of the decades-old efforts by the Montclair Board to deal as comprehensively as possible with de facto racial segregation in its public school system. See, Morean v. Bd. of Ed. of Montclair, 42 N.J. 237 (1964). Thus, 30 years ago, in Rice, et al v. Board of Education of the Township of Montclair, 1967 S.L.D., decided by the Commissioner November 8, 1967, Montclair officially was ordered to take action to correct a racial imbalance in its public school system. Thereafter, various steps were taken to accomplish that result, not only to achieve a constitutionally acceptable pupil racial balance but, in addition and as part of that process, to introduce novel and creative concepts in learning.”

For a comprehensive discussion of the history of the Montclair magnet system and the meeting that led to the so-called “Mothers’ Plan,” see the 25-minute video, “Our Schools, Our Town” available on the Montclair PTA Council website at this link:

[iii] See Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).

[iv] The Kirwan Institute report is available at

[v] See id. at 20.

[vi] See New Jersey School Performance Report for Nishuane School, Montclair, 2014-2015.

[vii] See

[viii] Below please find links to the 25 Letters to the Editor that have run in The Montclair Times opposing this charter application.  Not one letter has been printed supporting it, and my understanding is that no such letter has been submitted.

  • 5/26  Cary Chevat  “Charter off course”

  • 8/25 by Jill Wodnick  “Programs best address gap, not charters”

  • 8/25 David Herron: “It’s about the process”

  • 8/25 Hilary Fandel: “‘There is only one MCS’”

  • 8/25 by Julia Francis “;et’s include everyone”

  • 9/1 by Kate Newmark “Many complaints against the proposed MCS”

  • 9/1 by Sarah Blaine “FIAF’s coy answers are insufficient”

No Charter School in Montclair, NJ


So I know I’ve been even quieter than usual this summer.  I want to take a few minutes to tell you why.  As per the below testimony, which I will be sharing at the New Jersey State Board of Education meeting in Trenton, NJ this afternoon, last March a couple of Montclair, NJ residents filed an application to open a French immersion charter school in my town.  Despite opposition from stakeholders, to the community’s shock, the charter application received Phase 1 approval from the Education Commissioner.  In NJ, one and only one person, the state Education Commissioner, is exclusively tasked with deciding whether a charter application should be granted — there is zero local control over whether a charter is granted for a particular community.  The only option for communities opposed to the granting of a charter is to try to put as much political pressure on the Education Commissioner as possible to demonstrate the widespread opposition.  And then, of course, we hope and pray.  Welcome to democracy — Jersey style.

There had been some community opposition prior to the Phase 1 decision, driven primarily through an online letter created by a local education advocacy group, Montclair Cares About Schools.  But at the time of the Phase 1 approval, fewer than 400 people had signed the online letter, and opposition had been restricted to that, a couple of letters to the editor, a resolution by the Town Council, and an opposition letter by the Superintendent of our public schools.

I am not a member of Montclair Cares About Schools, although I appreciate and agree with the vast majority of their pro-public education policy objectives.  I was concerned, however, that the online letter hadn’t gotten much traction.  Around the same time, two moms in my younger daughter’s first grade class, who were active in PTA, etc., but not in education policy issues in the district more generally, knew of my education writing and advocacy.  They approached me to ask if I’d be willing to join with them to organize more united and forceful opposition to the charter application.  

We met in a park so our kids could play on the playground along with another local friend and fellow education advocate.  It seemed to me that for this issue, the better approach strategically and tactically speaking was to build coalition by building opposition that was as narrowly focused as possible — i.e., we oppose this charter school for Montclair — rather than “we oppose charter schools because charter schools are terrible no matter what.”  Our community includes a lot of people who sit on charter school boards, work in the charter school industry, but I knew that even a lot of people who are pro-charter in general were anti this particular charter, and I wanted to ensure that we could build a coalition that was as wide as possible.  All four of us were in agreement — this was going to be opposition to this particular charter school for Montclair, and despite most of our personal politics and feelings about charters more generally, for this purpose we were going to focus our opposition on the Montclair-specific reasons that a charter/this charter would be bad for Montclair, although of course part of our strategy would be to drive traffic to the Montclair Cares About Schools letter, as it was an easy online avenue for people to use to express opposition to the charter.  

As an FYI, I’ve found this narrow focus to be very successful, and we’ve managed to get even a lot of generally pro-charter folks to sign our letter.  One interaction I had was particularly telling — I was talking to a couple at our Farmers’ Market in August.  The woman laughed and immediately agreed to sign our letter, but said to me, “Don’t bother with him, he’s a big pro-charter schools guy, we fight about it all the time at the dinner table.”  I made my pitch about why one can be pro-charter in general, but still take a principled stand against this charter.  To my surprise and the woman’s glee, my appeal worked and the “big pro-charter schools guy” signed a letter too!  (I keep wondering if he’s managed to live that one down with his partner/wife yet.)  More generally, I think we in the pro-public education movement would be well-served to see where we can find common ground with advocates of so-called “education reform,” as I’ve found it a useful approach.

It’s been an eye-opening few months.  Since late June, we’ve drafted press releases and led a letter to the editor campaign that has generated 25 letters to the editor of our local paper opposing the charter school.  The Montclair Times also published a second editorial opposing the charter school.  The Town Council held a forum on the logistics issues with the proposed location for the charter school.  And we’ve been tabling and getting the word out everywhere — on the hottest and most humid days we’ve run tables at our local Farmers’ Market, at the All-Class Reunion, at the National Night Out, etc.  We’ve circulated at the public pools to explain the issues and gather signatures.  We’ve created a physical letter to be signed, and a Fact Sheet to educate the community.  And we’ve had meetings upon meetings upon meetings — with members of the Board of Education, with the Education Committee of the Montclair chapter of the NAACP (which is absolutely on our side in this), with our local Civil Rights Commission, with the mayor, with members of our Town Council, with members of our County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and other elected officials.  

To his credit, the President of the State Board of Education, Mark Biedron, came to Montclair to meet with us.  But even he has no control over whether this charter is approved.  At that meeting he promised to get us a meeting with staff of the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Charter and Renaissance Schools so we could at least make our case, but unfortunately he then retracted and we were told by both him and the head of the charter school office that it was not their ‘custom’ to meet with members of the local community (other than their interview/meeting with the charter applicants, of course) — once again, welcome to democracy, Jersey-style.  To date, despite our efforts and those of our elected officials, we have not yet been able to sway the Department of Education to establish a new custom — you know, a custom of actually sitting down and listening to stakeholders before making a decision.

We have gathered over 1,000 (1,094 as of yesterday’s count, to be exact) physical letters.  I PDF the originals at my office and then email the PDFs to various elected and appointed officials and snail mail the originals down to Trenton.  And the online letter has gathered another 1,858 signatures as of this writing.  We’ve seen how the sausage gets made, and learned a lot about local politics and our local community.  Overall, I’m really proud of our community and what we’ve accomplished.  We learned that a local hardware store had taken it upon itself to make copies and gather signatures on our physical letter and that it sent an additional hundreds of letters to Trenton in opposition.  (Go Saunders and South End Hardware Stores — shop local, people!)  I’ve been incredibly impressed with the letter to the editor campaign, which is my baby.  The most amazing part of that campaign is that 25 different writers all included 25 different sets of arguments for why this charter school is bad for our community.  We’ve also printed t-shirts, magnets, and spent more of our own dollars than I like to think about on everything from copying to postage.  

Through all of this, the charter applicants have been absolutely silent at the local level.  They did give one media interview — but that was to a friendly reporter at the Wall Street Journal, who refused to ask them any of the tough questions.  I’m highly disappointed in WSJ Reporter Leslie Brody, and you should be too.  Comments to that article say that this opposition is all union-led, but nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, to be honest, one of my biggest frustrations personally has been the union’s lack of public advocacy on this issue (some individual members of our union have been excellent in their personal capacities, but we’ve not heard much from the union leadership, although perhaps the Montclair Cares About Schools folks have — I get the problems with the optics of them getting out in front, but maybe just because we had to do all of this while school was out of session this summer, we’ve had no luck with them).  

Since we cannot get a meeting with the Department of Education, our best hope is to show up at the State Board of Education meeting in Trenton to testify during Open Public Comment about why this charter school is bad for our community.  Today — the first or second day of school for most school districts in NJ — at 2 P.M. is Open Public Comment in Trenton, more than an hour from our homes.  But many of us are going anyway.  We’ve organized carpools and babysitting, and we’re making it happen.  

Follow this link to find the testimony I plan to give in Trenton today, which focuses on why this charter school is likely to lead to the re-segregation of the public schools in our unique little town of Montclair.  On a more general note, what I’d like to know is this: why, given the successes of our all-magnet school system over 40 years, aren’t “reform” advocates suggesting this model, rather than a proliferation of charters, to communities across the country?  Personally, I continue to believe that the real culprit is economic and racial segregation, and that it’s our failure to complete the work of Brown v. Board of Education that has led to our national school system’s failure to meet the needs of all kids.  

And please read through the endnotes to my testimony — they’re really amazing, especially those 25 letters to the editor from members of the community.


GUEST POST: Anonymous Writes “To My Daughter on the Night Before You Grow Up”

The person who wrote this asked if I’d be willing to run this anonymously.  Of course, I said yes.  The details vary, but much in this post encapsulates my thoughts on this day before my oldest also starts middle school.  

To My Daughter On The Night Before You Grow Up….

My darling child,

Yes, I realize you will not actually be a grown up tomorrow. 

But what you will be, is on the road to becoming one. The pre-school and elementary school years, although fast, took place in the right lane, and at eleven years long, are the longest part of this growing up thing. But the changes that are about to occur are…well, a little bit staggering.  

You were a smiley and cuddly baby, an adorable and curious toddler, and these last 6 years of elementary school, you were a bright, sensitive, caring, talented, funny and beautiful child. 

But you are now changing lanes.  This is Middle School.  

While I realize these years are going to go fast, what gets me is that you are now getting on the road to truly becoming an adult.  You are about to look at the world through different eyes and the world is going to see you in a different light.  

I see it as a highway of youth with each lane representing a stage–this middle lane being the remainder of your years living under my roof. When you change lanes again, it will be for college, and that lane lasts just four years and moves at lightning speed. But the changes that occur from eighteen to twenty-two will not be as extreme as the changes that are going to occur between now and high school graduation.  So this is it, you are about to grow up.  And you are about to do it fast.

I will never forget the lump in my throat on your first day of Kindergarten.  You were never a child who had difficulty separating or starting something new.  You were thrilled to be in a new classroom, in a new school, and with new faces.  I, on the other hand felt like I was leaving my sweet innocent child alone in the wild.   As I kissed you good-bye and walked out of your classroom and into the school hallway and then out the front door, I was flooded with the reality that in a blink of an eye the year would be over and in a few more blinks you would be graduating the fifth grade.   And what really got me was the knowledge of what would happen in those blinks…the social development, the intellectual advances, the emotional growth, and all beginning in Kindergarten.

Elementary school was an incredible six years and the change from being just out of toddlerhood to being a tween is pretty astounding.  

You may not be aware of this now, but you are changing lanes. And this one is going to be a little bit faster. 

All these massive transformations are going to happen…your brain, your body, your want for friends over family, your sense of self, your interests, your crushes will stop being innocent and you will become less innocent, or at least less naïve to the perils of the world.

As this road lies ahead of you, and of me, I keep hearing the same sage advice from so many parents….BUCKLE UP. 

So, my darling daughter, I thought I’d give you some of my own advice on the night before you start growing up:

  1.  Stay kind. I can go on and on about how you have re-defined to me what it means to be a good person. You are really one of a kind.  Not a bad bone in that that body of yours. You are all heart and soul. And it makes me cringe to think of you entering a building where the meanest of mean can live.  I worry you will get eaten up in there.  But I also worry that middle school will harden you.  So, please stay kind. Continue to stand up for people and things you believe in.  It always make me proud how aware you are of the feelings of people around you.  Whether someone may not feel comfortable or included or someone needs an upstander, you have been there.  This is tough to do, especially in middle school.  Stay kind but also stay aware. 
  1.  See those “popular” girls over there. The ones that are really pretty and always look like they are sharing the most interesting, classified information with each other. And their laughter and fun seem to be everywhere. Yes, them. Look away.  Walk away.  While some of these girls will be great people, some are not. And many will likely have a strong need to be included and recognized by the “it girls.”  This is so normal and natural but please don’t be that girl.  What can happen to nice girls is they can do not nice things or unintentionally put friends on the backburner when a queen bee comes a buzzing. This can happen in small ways that are subtle or big ones that are cruel and obvious.   And the process, whether big or small, can be excruciating for all involved. So my advice…find kids whose only agenda in being your friend is….being your friend. Stay real and be with people that you can be yourself with.  Know that having silly, crazy fun with your friends is not a show for others, or a ladder to get somewhere else.  
  1. Write neater. You are going to have to step up your game here. School has always come easy for you and you have pretty much coasted through the elementary years. Not so anymore. You are going to have to study. And go that extra mile.  And write neater.
  1. Put down your phone. I truly feel badly for anyone born after 1996 who didn’t get to have a phone-free, insta-free, snap-free, group text-free, selfie-free adolescence.  And I totally get why your phone is in your hand.  I like my phone too, looking at Facebook and texting my friends. But I also know when to leave my phone off and away, and cease my virtual connection to the world outside. And I also know how to navigate and process this cyber-life, not only with little energy but also with thick skin.  You’ll get there someday, but for now please just know when it’s time to put down your phone.
  1.  Don’t follow every single rule.  Be safe, ethical and moral, but, seriously, break a rule or two.  Find a rule and a time it’s ok to break it and begin to let your wild side breathe.
  1. Know yourself and be yourself.  Next to being kind-hearted and compassionate, the most important thing to me, as your mom, is that you are comfortable in your own skin. Have confidence, and know and feel your beauty.  You are like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, one that fits into other peoples’ pieces at different times.  Each side or groove of everyone’s piece is a different personality trait and whether you are eating lunch with someone, doing a science project with a classmate, or having a sleepover with your best friend, you are fitting into their piece.  And when fitting into another person’s piece, depending on the side or quality of that piece, it can bring out that same quality in you. This happens with adults too. That’s why different friends can elicit different parts of our personality. This can be great.  But it can also stifle your character.  Make sure you don’t cover up your personality.  If, for example, you are hanging out with someone who is making fun of someone else, don’t laugh, and let your compassionate side show.  Be yourself.  Always.  Be caring.  Be funny.  Be smart.  Be special.  Be thoughtful.  Be kooky.  Be beautiful.  Be lovable.  And walk toward your talents and strengths. Actually, run.  You are not yet aware of what you are capable of and you have no idea what an extraordinary person you already are at eleven years old.  My respect for you is huge and my love for you is so enormous, it hurts.

I promise you that the energy you would expend to fit into a different mold to be recognized or accepted is much more damaging then the feeling of simply not being seen.

And this I promise you, my darling daughter, that even though you may not become an “it” girl or feel “cool” during the next three years or even the following four of High School, I promise you, you will feel every bit of “cool” the next time you switch lanes.

So, my sweet and darling daughter, good luck tomorrow growing up.