State Board Testimony 9-7-16

STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION TESTIMONY – SEPTEMBER 7, 2016

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.

ENDNOTES

[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: http://montclairpta.org/dynamic/htmlos.cgi/pta/pages13/index.html?siteid=COUNCIL.

[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 http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/montclair_focus_group_report_2010_0310.pdf.

[v] See id. at 20.

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

[vii] See http://baristanet.com/2010/03/montclair_boe_school_budget_meeting/.

[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”

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-cary-chevat-charter-off-course-1.1605382

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-colleen-martinez-would-charter-serve-special-needs-students-1.1636052

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-sara-lewis-montclair-charter-school-special-education-students-need-not-apply-1.1650094

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

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-jill-wodnick-programs-best-address-gap-not-charters-1.1650058

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

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-david-herron-it-s-about-the-process-1.1649968

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

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-hilary-fandel-there-is-only-one-mcs-1.1649986

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

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-julia-frances-let-s-include-everyone-1.1649989

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

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-kate-newmark-many-complaints-against-the-proposed-mcs-1.1652978

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

http://www.northjersey.com/opinion/opinion-letters-to-the-editor/montclair-times-letter-sarah-blaine-fiaf-s-coy-answers-are-insufficient-1.1652820

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