Camden’s Chartered Course: Promising Reform in Camden’s School System

By Josiah McCarson

            With Camden having some of the highest poverty, it is easy to see why so many continually try to pull Camden City out of the mud. Despite involvement from civilians in addition to local, state, and federal officials; Camden has not had the turnaround it needs.  Time has shown how Camden’s revival cannot be brought with something as simple as money. It will require careful strategic planning to ensure that the progress made will not backslide, and the most pertinent change is to have better, more successful schools. Unfortunately, none of the efforts have made the school system successful.   The public school system of Camden is not broken and in need of repair, but it is dead and in need of replacement.

The Urban Hope Act is the best solution Camden has seen in a while. It allows non-profit entities to create up to four renaissance schools in any failing school district. Given Governor Chris Christie’s reputation for working around the check and balances of our state government, and how quickly this act was approved, it may seem as though there is not sufficient reason to determine a school district as failing. However, the requirements for failure have been made so as not to single out any specific districts. According to the Urban Hope Act, in school districts located in a city of the second class, the school is considered failing if 55% of the students school partially proficient in mathematics and language arts on annual state evaluation exams.  This means that a school is considered failing when the majority of students perform below their grade level. However, this is based only off of the 2009-2010 school year. Unfortunately, in previous years, the scores have only been worse, and the younger, more developing grades, also have low scores. (Charts 2,3) These schools have not only recently failed, but they have been failing for quite some time. However, are new schools the answer? Is it not possible that these schools fail because they do not have enough funding?

When considering funding public education, it is important to remember the limit of the school’s budget. Research has shown that a better budget can improve a school’s effectiveness, and a cut budget only hurts. In an article for the Huffington post, Joy Resmovits, an education reporter, shows how budget cuts nearly forced a previously above average student to be held back, with the only thing saving her being money for special tutoring. A bigger budget can provide things like newer technology, more teachers, and better sports programs. Unfortunately, this is impractical for Camden where crime rates and poverty lower property value so the property taxes are insufficient to provide such funds.  Camden already is one of the most expensive public schools, spending over $19,118 per student. That is 60% more than the national average of $11,467. But with less than 10% of the budget being covered by the appropriate taxes, how is this monstrous budget paid? (Giordano) For over a decade, nearly half of the annual budget (for all expenditures, not just per pupil costs) has been funded by “Core Curriculum Standards Aid” or “Equalization Aid”, state aid given to the school for the purpose of having the students perform at the state required standards. This aid alone could finance the budget of one of the many successful schools in America.

Chart 1
chart 3

      The graph above compares three different pieces of financial data. The total operating budget is all the money the district receives from the government and itself, whether it is from taxes, tuition, or earned. Revenues is the money the district receives from the local taxes, any interest the district has earned, tuition, and any money the district can earn for itself (categorized as “Unrestricted Miscellaneous Revenues”). Equalization aid is a little more complicated. Before 2008, funds for the same purpose had been divided into several different categories, including the aforementioned “Core Curriculum Standards Aid”. However, the “School Funding Reform Act of 2008” rearranged the funds in an effort to lower costs. It worked. After one year of the budget reform, Camden’s Equalization aid was reduced by $38.4M while still increasing the schools overall budget, a promising start for the “School Funding Reform Act of 2008”. Unfortunately, it proved unsuccessful as there was no significant change on the assessments, and the funds were quickly returned. This is a true account of how, even with budgetary reform, Camden’s education system still failed.

This is not to say that in cases as bad as Camden, exceptions should be made and more funds are needed. Camden has exceptional needs. In addition to the local revenue and the equalization aid, Camden schools receive more towards its budget from the state to help with the other challenges in the classroom many students face. These funds do important things such as helping with special needs and providing assistance for bilingual students. These funds are an absolute necessity and ought not to be modified. The issue is not that there is a lot of spending. These schools have been spending to have a turnaround, and although they have shown progress, it is too slow and the state has bigger problems. After over a decade the schools still do not meet the requirements needed to be considered successful. With the economy in the state that it is in, the people can no longer afford to fund slow moving failures. That is why the Urban Hope Act will take the responsibility of our children’s education away from corrupt, ineffective politicians, and give it to ambitious, caring, non-profit entities.

For those that do not understand how a non-profit could fund, not only the schools, but also the creation of schools, do not worry. The Urban Hope Act will allow the renaissance schools to receive some state funds where needed.

“The bill provides that the costs of a renaissance school project, including the costs of land acquisition, site remediation, site development, design, construction, and any other costs required placing into service the school facility or facilities constituting the renaissance school projects would be the sole expense of the nonprofit entity.  However, the nonprofit entity may use State funds to pay for a lease, debt service, or mortgage for any facility constructed or otherwise acquired.” (Urban Hope Act)

Renaissance schools will receive the funds they want only after approval from the board and a vote of the people.

Although these renaissance schools pose a solution to the financial problems of our schools, will they be any more successful than the current schools? The renaissance schools will be subject to the same criteria as other New Jersey schools. They are required to have qualified staff and take the same assessments as the rest of the state. There is some concern from current teachers that the renaissance schools may show success, but at the expense of the students. “The schools may neglect the at risk students that do poorly on the tests and only encourage dropping out and the lifestyles that follow,” fears one Camden educator. It is possible that the new schools will create problems, but there is always uncertainty that comes with change, especially due to the corruption often found in corporate America. However, the renaissance schools will not be run by a corporation interested in making money, they will be run by non-profits interested in helping people. (Urban Hope Act)

Although there is some uncertainty with these new schools, there is an abundance of hope. In 2009, Stanford University released a study quantifying the effectiveness of charter schools over public schools, and although much of the nation showed most charter schools having no benefit, to actually being worse, the charter schools built by The Urban Hope Act would perform better than its public counterparts. In the official press release CREDO states, “Students enrolled in urban charter schools in New Jersey learn significantly more in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers.” This study shows how these schools will be a benefit to their students. These schools are not to be seen as a threat but as a blessing.

It is easy to think of such drastic efforts and only focus on the possible negative outcomes and side effects, but if the Urban Hope Act receives the support it requires to work the possibilities are endless. Chet Churchill, a teacher at Camden High School believes, “…the old and new can coexist. But it will look different that it does now”. As the new schools develop, the current ones will also develop. Develop into what? It is impossible to say, but Camden teacher Linda Delengowski hopes, “for vocational or technical institutes to rise out of this old school…. where kids really wanted to learn a trade… ….just figure out where this 21st century is going, and find a way to build dreams for the future!” Although the government is stepping in and making rash decisions, turning things around, there are still inspirers where they are needed. The students are still molded by dreamers and encouraged to reach their full potential. These schools will definitely be a challenge for Camden, but if it wants the turn around it needs, it is time to try something new.

Chart 2

chart 1Chart 3chart 2

All data was collected from New Jersey’s public records found on the official web site for the state of New Jersey. (www.nj.gov)

Works Cited

Giordano, Rita, and Dylan Purcell. “Third of N.J. Districts in Area Top State Average in Per-pupil Spending.” Inquirer [Philadelphia] 21 May 2011: 1-2. Print.

Stanford University. CREDO. Charter School StudiesStanford University. Stanford University, 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 8 Dec. 2012.

“Vocabulary Test Results Show Top US Students Losing Ground, Others Stagnate.” Huffington Post. N.p., 6 Dec. 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2012.

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