For Ezdehar Abu-harab, the North Star Charter Academy in Newark, New Jersey was a godsend. She was horrified at the quality of education her son was receiving in one of Newark’s other public elementary schools.
“No homework!” she said, incredulous. “They never got homework! It was just about maintaining order in the classroom.”
Charter schools were first introduced into this chronically low-performing urban school district in the nineties and expanded in the last decade with support from both Republican and Democratic politicians.
They are publicly funded independent schools established by teachers, parents, or community groups under the terms of a charter with a local or national authority.
Now 31 percent of public school children in Newark, including Abdu-harab’s two children, attend charter schools. District-wide graduation rates and test scores are up; suspension rates are down.
Abdu-harab heard about the schools when her daughter was entering kindergarten. The college biology teacher put her daughter’s name in the lottery and landed a coveted spot.
The difference between her son’s and daughter’s educations, she said, was night and day.
“She was using words my son couldn’t even understand,” even though he was three years older, she explained. Her son is now in the charter school as well, thanks to a provision that allows siblings to attend the same school.
The US Department of Education under the Trump administration and its new Secretary Betsy Devos is promoting charter schools as a way to empower parents and provide better options for students, like Abdu-harab’s children.
By allowing schools to be independent of the district’s bureaucracy and union commitments, the argument goes, the schools operate more efficiently and are more responsive to the community’s needs.
The administration has proposed increasing aid to charter schools by $267m nationwide while at the same time slashing the overall education budget by more than 13 percent.
A growing chorus of critics, however, including teachers’ unions, minority groups and parents, not just in New Jersey but around the country, accuse charters of draining resources from traditional district-run schools and contributing to racial and economic segregation.
That is allegedly the case in Red Bank, a small borough on the Jersey coast, barely an hour’s drive but a world away from Newark.
Housed in a residential downtown neighbourhood, the school has the look and feel of a small, private institution with longer school days and smaller classes. Many parents picking up their children one afternoon said they were drawn to its intimate setting.
Like Rodolfo Ramirez, who said it reminded him of how he was raised in Costa Rica. He called it a good inner-city school.
At first glance the school looks quite diverse. The parent group known as Fair Schools Red Bank, however, along with the Latino Coalition of Monmouth County, have filed a complaint with the Education Department alleging that the Red Bank Charter School is having a discriminatory impact on the district.
Jennifer Garcia said the parents initially got together when the charter school applied to the state for permission to double its enrolment from 200 to 400 students, a petition that was ultimately denied.
Parents’ initial concern was the loss of funding to the district, which was forcing the school to cut popular programmes and increase class sizes.
By law New Jersey charters are entitled to just 90 percent of the district’s cost per pupil. In practice, however, district funds have been frozen, despite growing enrolment, while charter schools, favoured by the current Republican state administration, remain fully funded.
According to Jared Rumage, Superintendent of Red Bank borough schools, charters are currently getting more than half of the district’s $3m in state funds, even though they are educating far fewer students than the 1,200 in the borough.
“The duplicative costs that are required to run two school districts do not make sense for a community when you have an outstanding district,” Rumage insists.
He points out that his schools’ test scores have been going up the past three years, despite the challenges of a growing population, many of whom speak English as a second language.
The Charter School’s test scores, while higher, have been on a downward trend.
And while Red Bank Charter was 50 percent white last school year, with the rest minority, primarily Hispanic, the complaint points out that the district schools’ population is just 7 percent white and 81 percent Hispanic.
It contends that is a violation of rules meant to encourage desegregation of New Jersey schools. The percentage of poor students who speak English as a second language is also much higher districtwide, students Garcia describes as “harder [and more costly] to educate”.
But Charter School Principal Meredith Pennotti says the district was segregated long before her school got there.
“The Red Bank Charter School is one of the most integrated schools in one of the most racially segregated states in America,” Penotti said in a statement.
She points out that the total school age population of Red Bank, including children who attend private schools, is 36 percent white according to the U.S. Census Bureau – closer to her school’s demographics.
Amanda Vega-Malinowski, communications director of the New Jersey Charter School Association, says a number of charter schools, including Red Bank, are now using a weighted admissions system to give low-income students an advantage in applying.
Charters also provide information about the lottery process in a variety of languages, so everyone can take advantage, she said.
“But at the end of the day we can’t make people apply,” says Vega-Malinowski, who was herself a teacher in a Newark Charter school with the Teach for America programme. “It comes down to parental choice.”
Elsewhere in the state, those choices include charter schools that specialise in the performing arts and sustainability, she points out.
Those schools cannot be blamed for the district’s lack of funding when it’s the state not following its own education-funding formula.
She insists charter schools are mandated to provide all of the same services as other public schools and qualify for less government assistance overall.
The real irony, however, is that both the New Jersey Charter School Association and Fair Schools Red Bank are unhappy with President Trump’s proposed budget, which puts charters first.
Since most of the funding is earmarked for expanding existing charters, Vega-Malinowski does not expect New Jersey will see much of it.
And she is worried that other losses, such as cuts to Medicaid and Food Stamps, will affect all schoolchildren, including charter students.