Education Law Center is having a temper tantrum. In a letter to the New Jersey Department of Education, the law group, which operates as an arm of NJEA, calls for “the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) to immediately end the unauthorized practice of allowing charter schools in poor urban Abbott districts to operate separate preschool programs outside the districts’ universal ‘Abbott Preschool Program.’” Why? Because “only Abbott districts are allowed to operate high-quality preschools” and the DOE’s decision to allow charter schools in Abbott districts to run preschools “undermines the cornerstone of the nationally-recognized success” of district-run Abbott preschools.”
Here are four thoughts on ELC’s histrionics:
- ELC, which defines itself as “the most effective advocates for equal educational opportunity and education justice in the United States,” abandons children whose parents choose alternative public schools. Charter school students are “other people’s children” because their parents availed themselves of public school choice, something that wealthier people do all the time by moving to a better district. In fact, ELC is so threatened by parent autonomy that it is currently engaged in a series of specious attacks on NJ charters, charging them with increasing segregation and fighting the expansions much desired by many Abbott families. Right now 55% of Camden public school students attend charter or renaissance schools. In Newark charter schools educate about 35% of public school students. ELC has no interest in these children because “educational justice” should only be available to parents who cede their autonomy.
- The Abbott Preschool Program operates as a kind of voucher system (something ELC denies strenuously because NJEA hates vouchers). But these are the facts: Parents in Abbott districts can enroll their children in district full-day preschools for 3 and 4-year-olds or opt for private preschools. The district then sends the money to providers. That’s called a voucher. For examples, here’s the list of preschool providers for Trenton, here’s the list for Paterson, here’s the list for Asbury Park, and here’s the list for Jersey City which, by the way, would now never qualify for Abbott designation because it’s gotten so gentrified yet parents, even those making 6-figure salaries, still get to send their kids to preschool at state expense.
(These preschools are expensive. In 2017, when private providers educated 56% of preschoolers, the annual cost for serving 45,875 children was $611 million. That breaks down to $12,788 per student for district-run schools and $14,375 per student for private providers that contract with the districts to run Abbott preschools.)
- If ELC gets its way, there would be eligible children without placements because it’s unclear that there would be room in non-charter preschools. Where exactly would those children go? Certainly districts don’t have adequate facilities; if they did, they wouldn’t be sending 56% of preschoolers to private or charter placements. In addition, one of the advantages of charter preschools is that the children simply stay put when they start kindergarten, relieving them of the anxiety of transitions. But ELC doesn’t care what’s best for kids.
- In the letter to the DOE accompanying the press release, ELC argues that “the district — and only the district — is responsible to ensure community-based, private providers meet the ‘stringent requirements’ for high-quality preschool.” This argument is undermined by some school districts’ lack of responsibility towards K-12 students. One need look no further than Asbury Park Public Schools, an Abbott district recently overseen by Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, which has a long record of being incapable of meeting even the loosest requirements for high-quality instruction, governance, and budgeting. For example, Asbury Park spends $42K per student per year and runs an elementary school where only 11% of third-graders can read at grade-level, a critical benchmark for future academic success. Also, administers spent federal money intended for academic enrichment for low-income children on an adult junket to Ghana.
So, yeah, let’s hold districts like Asbury Park accountable for early childhood development. Because that’s working out so well.
Education Law Center’s beef isn’t about student well-being or the benefits of early childhood preschools or about legal rulings. ELC’s beef is about market share and its fear of what happens when parents get to choose among different public school sectors. This animus may make good copy but its abandonment of families who exercise autonomy is contrary to everything it pretends to stand for.