NJ’s Urban Hope Act Divides ELC and NJEA

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How pissed off is Education Law Center over the proposed Urban Hope Act, the fast-tracked bill that would (in its most recent incarnation) build a few new schools in Camden, Newark, and Jersey City?

This pissed: ELC is accusing the Christie Administration of using the bill to shut down the School Development Authority (SDA), which “has stranded 52 major school facilities projects…in which taxpayers have already invested over $300 million.” And that’s not all. Fumes ELC on its Facebook page,

In addition, the SDA has refused to address hundreds of emergency health and safety projects in some of the oldest, most dilapidated school buildings in the state, forcing thousands of students and teachers to endure dangerous, unsafe and unhealthy conditions every day. Even worse, the SDA has spent close to $90 million in taxpayer funds over the last two years to support almost 300 employees, many of whom are highly paid, along with office space and other overhead, while the agency has not completed, or even started, one major construction project. The waste of taxpayer funds at the SDA since January 2010 amounts to a scandal of unprecedented proportions.

Deep breaths, everyone. The Urban Hope Act (here’s background from NJ Spotlight) was originally proposed by State Senator Donald Norcross and Assemblyman Angel Fuentes, both of Camden. Its intent was to turn over our worst schools to private management, somewhat like the Renaissance Program in Philadelphia (just across the river from Camden).

The Christie Administration apparently felt confident enough of the bill’s passage to include it in its waiver application to the U.S. D.O.E. for a bye on ESEA benchmarks. Over the last few months the bill’s been considerably toned down and now would simply allow four new school buildings to be built in Camden, Newark, and Jersey City, would hold all schools to the same accountability standards, and would protect teachers’ right to organize. The bill is expected to pass through the Assembly Budget Committee today and come to the floor of the Legislature on Monday, the last day of the lame duck session.

The compromises are enough to bring NJEA’s leadership around. Here’s a just-released statement from NJEA President Barbara Keshishian:

The Urban Hope Act is an innovative effort to improve educational outcomes for children in some of our most challenging educational settings. NJEA supports this legislation because it allows for innovation while providing meaningful public accountability. It is a creative expansion of public school choice that uses public funds to support public education. “We appreciate the opportunity to work with the sponsors of this legislation. This bill ensures that employees in the proposed Renaissance schools will have all of the rights of other public school employees, which will help create a climate of innovation and creativity in the classroom.

Obviously not everyone’s on board. Count ELC as primary opponents and add in the anti-surburban charter school organization Save Our Schools-NJ, which apparently fights any matter that offends their (mis)conception that private entities are an assault on the purity of public education. Here’s SOS-NJ’s most recent Facebook posting:

RED ALERT! NJ Senate Poised to Enhance Corruption of Public Education…this awful bill could be law by the second week in January…This is major league public education privatization and a recipe for corruption and abuse, being snuck through the legislature at the end of the Lame Duck Session.

Here’s the thing. ELC is right: school buildings in Camden (and Newark and Jersey City and lots of other impoverished Jersey towns) are rife with “dangerous, unsafe, and unhealthy conditions.” SDA delays are scandalous.

But how do you go from there to the conclusion that new buildings would result in “students housed in safe and educationally adequate schools”? Safe? Sure, if by safe you mean the sheetrock’s not crumbling. But educationally adequate?

Camden’s high school students attend classes in dreadful buildings and desperately need facilities where the sheetrock isn’t crumbling and the toilets don’t leak. But will such necessary improvements lead to “educationally adequate schools,” as ELC promises? In 2010 80.7% of Camden High’s juniors and seniors failed the state assessment in language arts (an 8th grade level test). So many of them failed the math portion that the NJ DOE data field has an asterisk for all levels. Average SAT scores are 330 in math and 340 in verbal. No Advanced Placements courses are offered. The graduation rate is reported to be 42.1%, although that number will drop this year once the State no longer allows district to self-report.

The kids at Camden High need a lot more than new buildings. ELC must know that, yet it indulges in rhetoric that belittles the intelligence and intentions of its stakeholders. Is it feeling betrayed by NJEA’s willingness to work with the Christie Administration? Is it feeling territorial about school construction? And does anyone there really believe that all the kids need in Camden (and Jersey City and Newark) is some new drywall and a plumber?

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  • Julia, January 6, 2012 @ 10:55 am Reply

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Julia, January 6, 2012 @ 10:59 am Reply

    And, as you know, we are not against charter schools. We are trying to change New Jersey's very broken charter schools law and most members of the legislature agree with us that these changes are necessary.

    Here, for example, are just a few of the problems with New Jersey's charter school approval process.


  • Julia, January 6, 2012 @ 11:13 am Reply

    And here's John Mooney's very good summary of what happened yesterday: http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/12/0106/0043/

    The legislators agreed with the Education Law Center that the underlying problem this bill was trying to address was the fact that the School Development Authority was not building critically needed schools.

    Laura, please try to be less blinded by your ideology and actually look at the data.

  • Julia, January 6, 2012 @ 2:16 pm Reply


    Here's what Save Our Schools thinks about this legislation — from our Facebook page.

    “The Urban Hope legislation that passed the Assembly and Senate budget committees yesterday (and is fully expected to become law) was a much, much better bill than the one originally introduced. In fact, the bill's sponsor made significant changes to the bill yesterday that were consistent with what we and other witnesses requested.

    The primary aspect of the bill that still concerns us is the potential for inside dealing and corruption because of the significant role that for-profit companies can play — including owning the land on which these publicly-financed schools are build, building the schools without the requirement for a public bidding process, and managing them under sub-contract for the non-profit that oversees the school. As we pointed out in our testimony, http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=321196094580224 the experience of other states with for-profit management of nonprofit charter schools has not been good for the students or the taxpayers.

    We were very encouraged by the willingness of the legislation's sponsor to amend this legislation to make it better and will continue to monitor and keep you informed regarding how this legislation is implemented going forward.

  • NJ Left Behind, January 6, 2012 @ 3:11 pm Reply

    Thanks for the info, Julia. I really am not “blinded by ideology” — I do worry, however, that groups like SOS-NJ don't quite get the urgent needs of kids trapped in districts unlike Princeton.

  • Julia, January 6, 2012 @ 6:09 pm Reply


    Our mission is to ensure access to a high quality public school education for EVERY child in New Jersey.

    That is what drives our push to protect the current funding formula and to modify the interdistrict public choice program to enable more children in high-poverty districts to attend public schools in higher wealth communities. Unlike vouchers, which trap children in unregulated private schools that are segregated by income and race, targeted interdistrict programs produce good educational outcomes.

    And by the way, going to a school in an unsafe building is also an urgent problem, yet you dismissed ELC's critique of the School Development Authority's inactivity — a critique shared by most of the legislators who spoke on this issue yesterday.

  • kallikak, January 8, 2012 @ 12:33 am Reply


    What's with the current funding formula? The Supreme Court did not seriously defend it in the face of Christie's initial cuts last year. Do you think we will get full funding this year?

  • Julia, January 9, 2012 @ 12:46 am Reply


    Only if the voters push for it. The cuts to school funding were definitely not popular, but residents have to let their State Senators and Assembly Members know that they want the formula fully funded for all the districts.

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