After I read North Jersey Media Group’s (NJMG) voluminous series called “Millions of Your Tax Dollars Have Disappeared Into NJ’s Flawed Charter School Experiment,” I had two reactions. On the one hand, I was angry that the paper, with its ties to anti-charter groups, would have the chutzpah to publish a hit job on school choice without revealing its agenda. On the other hand I felt sorry for reporters Jean Rimbach and Abbott Koloff who, in my view, tried their best to include balanced material on how charters obtain school buildings (hey, journalists don’t write their own headlines, select pull-quotes, or create graphics ) and probably wondered why they had to spend an entire year deep in this rabbit hole in the first place.
Look, it’s just not that complicated. New Jersey’s charter school law, ranked 33d out of 44 charter school laws in the country, disallows charter schools from borrowing money to build new facilities and so they have to rely on complicated real estate transactions that involve federal tax subsidies. This system is quite common in urban redevelopment, including education in needy neighborhoods. In a Star-Ledger op-ed last year Ryan Hill of KIPP and Brett Peiser of Uncommon who both represent national charter networks with large presences in New Jersey, explained,
Our schools partner with nonprofit organizations that utilize federal programs to fund the development and renovation of facilities. These are Clinton- and Obama-era programs designed to help redevelop urban areas. They have broad bipartisan support, and are widely utilized by nonprofits in health care, higher education, affordable housing and other important programs.
Why do public charters in NJ rely on these Clinton/Obama era programs? Because while our poor urban districts, most commonly known as “Abbotts,” get free buildings from the School Development Authority (which has spent over $12 billion in taxpayer money to build them and is seeking to borrow more) and wealthier districts get various sorts of facilities aid, charters get nothing. If state legislators amended our almost 30-year-old law, this problem would go away.
To wit: The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ primary criticism of our charter school is that it doesn’t provide “equitable operational funding and equitable access to capital funding and facilities.”
So I have two questions correlated with my two reactions: Why would North Jersey Media Group invest so much in this sort of hatchet piece? And how did these diligent reporters maintain their integrity?
The answer to the first question is this: NJMG’s anti-charter bias is built into its political and legal connections. So let’s connect the dots.
The Bergen Record, NJMG’s primary newspaper, was owned by the Borg family for 80 years until its sale to Gannett in 2016. Jennifer Borg, who most recently served as the NJMG’s general counsel and vice president, has tremendous influence in NJ media; until 2016 she was Chair of the Board of the North Jersey Press Association. When Gannett bought her family out, she became a full-time attorney (in February 2017) at a law firm called Pashman Stein. Pashman Stein is closely connected to a legal group called Education Law Center, which opposes charter schools and supports the current moratorium.
In turn, Education Law Center is closely connected to NJ’s primary teacher union NJEA, whose leaders regularly denounce charter schools and provide more than a quarter of Education Law Center’s annual funding. The “Stein” of Pashman Stein is Michael; his dad, former NJ Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein, has worked for his son’s firm since 2002 and also sits on ELC’s Board of Directors. Other trustees of ELC include Vince Giordano, NJEA’s former Executive Director, and Ed Richardson, NJEA’s current Executive Director.
Once Jennifer Borg left NJMG and joined Pashman Stein, there was a shift in the paper’s coverage of NJ charter schools. All of a sudden the paper started running anti-charter stories, many based on the work of Bruce Baker, whose work is largely funded by teacher unions and their allies, especially NJEA,NEA, and Education Law Center. Baker has also written three anti-charter papers for the National Policy Education Center (here’s my take on one), which is funded by NEA. Another dozen Baker reports were released or run by ELC. A 2011 hidden camera expose showed a man posing as an union official and getting Baker to say that he charges $30,000 for an anti-charter paper.
In another example of Pashman Stein’s involvement in anti-charter litigation, it represented ELC in its appeal of NJ Education Commissioner David Hespe’s approval of the expansion of seven Newark charter schools. (See here for details.)
But Pashman Stein doesn’t only work on anti-charter cases. They’ve litigated a fair number of other public school-related suits. Example: in 2011 the Star-Ledger ran a series of stories alleging patronage, nepotism, and corruption on the Elizabeth School Board. The Elizabeth School Board hired Gary Stein as its chief investigator into the scandal while also retaining Pashman Stein as legal counsel. Judge Stein insisted there was no unethical behavior on the part of the Board, despite mountains of evidence. Here a legal analyst uses the Elizabeth case as what not to do if you want to maintain integrity during internal investigations: “During and subsequent to the investigation, critics decried the conflicts of interest created by Justice Stein overseeing an investigation into an entity already in a paying relationship with his son and his law firm.”
The taxpayers of New Jersey paid Justice Stein $500,000 for his flawed investigation into the Elizabeth Board’s corruption. Pashman Stein billed the district another $469,000. When a new Board was voted in, in 2016 it quickly fired Pashman Stein; an independent audit found that Pashman Stein had overbilled Elizabeth by more than one million dollars.
Concurrently ELC was also billing Elizabeth Public Schools for about $50,000 from 2005-2015 and, of course, it applauded Judge Stein’s findings. What’s that about corrupt officials milking the taxpayers for cash?
Also noteworthy is that Pashman Stein filed the 2018 suit that alleges that NJ charter schools exacerbate segregation (patently untrue, by the way) and demands that the state stop approving or expanding charter applications until New Jersey cures segregation and inequity. (Here’s my take.)
So how exactly did the NJMG reporters retain a semblance of integrity in a series with a clear anti-charter agenda and peppered with misleading statements “like taxpayers bear the burden of inflated rents, high interest rates, and unexplained costs” and public charters schools are a “failed experiment” and “serious flaws in the design of the system have led to the diversion of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to private companies that control real estate”?
Here’s how: the journalists manage to slip in asides like “no system was put in place to help charter operators find and finance school buildings” (exactly the criticism of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools). If you read carefully you’ll find this: NJ’s charter school law didn’t address facilities “in order to avoid controversy with the state teachers’ union.” And our charter school law’s “lack of clarity” on facilities is “bad policy or no policy at all.” They quote Dwight Berg, an economist who works on charter school facilities, who says NJ’s law “doesn’t make any sense” and has “pushed schools away from the smart thing of permanently owning their facilities to leasing.” They quote another expert who says, “these convoluted transactions” derive from lack of “clear charter financing mechanisms.” They point out that unlike other states, New Jersey doesn’t allow charters to access unused space in traditional schools.
They also note that, by law, NJ charters are supposed to receive 90 percent of student funding but receive on average only 73 percent and as low as 42 percent.
And who knows? Maybe their editors deleted a section on how taxpayers gets screwed by facilities costs in traditional districts, like the $155 million renovation of Trenton Central High School and the $100 million renovation for Camden High (managed by your corruption-ridden Schools Development Authority).
Meanwhile, in the week since the series came out, the heads of NJ’s two largest charter networks have responded with civility and integrity. KIPP put out a statement noting that,
TEAM and its supporting organizations have invested over $110 million in both building and upgrading school facilities in Newark, creating capacity to house 4,180 students and supporting hundreds of construction jobs…Absolutely no school employees, officer, or board members have a financial interest or inure pecuniary benefit from any transactions of TEAM schools…Charter school laws in New Jersey have received an F grade in national research due, in large part, to the lack of facilities funding.
Uncommon said “all of the facility financing structures…were employed strictly in accordance with the law” and “not a single entity connected to Uncommon Schools or North Star is a for-profit entity — all are non-profits set up solely for the purpose of serving Newark children.”
Look, we’ve got enough problems giving students access to high-quality classroom placements in New Jersey, especially in our urban centers. We don’t need misinformation masquerading as journalism that expands the wallets and clout of powerful people supported by anti-school choice interest groups whose endgame is to close off access to alternative public schools. We do need fact-based unbiased analyses of how to make all our public schools, charter and traditional, meet the needs of schoolchildren and ready them for life after high school.
All NJMG gave us was a doorstop.