Leaders of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) often profess disdain for public charter schools. But how far will they go to stop expansion of a popular school that, in response to parent demand, seeks to double its enrollment? For illumination, look no further than the public school wars in Red Bank, a small town by the Navesink River in Monmouth County. This is the home of
Red Bank Charter School, founded in 1997, just two years after New Jersey passed its first charter school law. Last year the school
proposed to expand capacity from 200 to 400 students. That proposal kindled the full fury of NJEA union representatives who made it their job to foment community dissent through a campaign that charged the tiny charter with deliberately increasing school segregation. NJEA won. The Christie administration
rejected the expansion proposal. Now NJEA is gloating about its role in the theatrics. And the celebration hardly ends there: two groups, one called “Fair Schools Red Bank” and the other called “Latino Coalition” have filed a
civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice requesting forced closure of Red Bank Charter School (RBCS) on the grounds that its presence is producing segregated schools. Red Bank is a relatively diverse town (according to the 2010 census, 63 percent of residents are White and 35 percent are Latino) but the K-8 school district is mostly Latino and low-income. In fact, only 9.3 percent of
Red Bank Middle School students are White. The rest go to Rumson Country Day School, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy sends his kids, Ranney School (tuition at both is about $30,000 per year) or parochial school. In fact, 20-years-ago when RBCS first applied to the state for a charter, one premise was to reduce“White flight." Currently 11 percent of traditional district students are White and 50 percent of RBCS students are White; Black student distribution is even (between 10 percent and 11 percent at both) and Latino students comprise 78 percent of district students and 40 percent of RBCS. Many more students in the two district schools qualify for free- and reduced-lunch than in the charter. To address this economic disparity, the
charter expansion application proposed a weighted lottery that would increase the number of economically-disadvantaged students so that charter demographics would eventually mirror Red Bank's school-age population. In spite of this remedy proposed by RBCS, which has already been implemented even though the expansion was rejected, NJEA leaders went full bore—lobbying legislators, organizing opposition, and spending member dues money. Here are a few quotes from
an NJEA article boasting about the union triumph.
"NJEA UniServ Field Representative Lorraine Tesauro supported RBBEA [Red Bank Borough Education Association] involvement, bringing NJEA resources to bolster the local association’s needs."
"The PTO, administration, and the local association paid for lawn signs with the inspirational message 'Dream Big—We’ll help you get there.'"
"Members of RBBEA attended events in force and provided support to parent groups as well as creating and implementing association-led actions."
Much of the action appears orchestrated by the president of RBBEA President Carol Boehm. “She and her members,” the article notes, “organized a rally with police escorts...chanting ‘Charter expansion, what do we say? No way, we won’t pay.’" With each week Boehm and her members brought a new action. Here’s Boehm:
We needed to be very careful about how many teachers were speaking, and how many teachers were out in the forefront.
We didn’t want the political nature of this to be perceived as teachers just looking out for their jobs. We strategically placed members as a silent majority. Fifty to 100 members were present at parent run meetings as well as holding their own.
But of course this is all about union leaders looking out for jobs, or at least union leaders looking out for stable dues revenue. Why else fight against an alternative public school that is committed to repairing student demographic disparities? Why else fight against choices for the many families who sit on RBCS’s waiting list? Now that expansion prospects are quashed, the endgame appears to be to shutter the school in order to achieve integration. But this premise is flawed when one considers the actual demographics of Red Bank Borough and Red Bank Charter School.
In other words, shutting down RBCS wouldn't change district demographics. Here's another way to look at it:
RBCS Principal Meredith Pennotti invited the Latino Coalition Director Frank Argote-Freyre to visit and talk directly to Latino parents but he never responded. However, a publication called the
Red Bank Green reported this:
Felipa Pastrana, a Mexican immigrant who has twin daughters in second grade at Red Bank Charter School, said, ‘I want it to be known to the entire Red Bank community that the many Latino parents at Red Bank Charter School fully support the school.’ Lourdes Hernandez, who moved from Veracruz, Mexico, to Red Bank 16 years ago, said she ‘is thrilled with the education her four children received at Red Bank Charter School.’
And what of the formal complaint? Ms. Pastrana said, “We have never heard of the Latino Coalition. I’m insulted that they claim to represent Latinos in Red Bank when they are not even from here.” Ms. Hernandez says, “This group has no right to speak for me or any of the other Latino parents at the charter school, or the many Latino parents who are on the waiting list to attend the charter school.” NJEA hasn't formally weighed in on the civil rights complaint yet, those who worked closely with the NJEA to kill the charter expansion are also leading the fight to close the charter school. Perhaps a better use of their time would be to listen to the parents they pretend to represent.
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...