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.