This week the Star-Ledger featured an interview with Sue Altman, the head of NJ Working Families Alliance and much in the news for her performance at a New Jersey State Legislative hearing about possible abuses of a tax incentive program in Camden. Altman is enraged by these tax incentives because she hates George Norcross. She’s not the only one: NJEA/Phil Murphy don’t care for him either, and the convoluted mess that is New Jersey Democratic politics (Norcross is the most powerful Democrat in the state, despite not holding an elective office) are roiling Camden.
Here is my question to Sue Altman: Would you prefer that Camden revert to its dubious distinction of having the worst school system and the most violent streets in the state?
Because that’s how it was before the tax incentives. That’s how it was before the Urban Hope Act that authorized new hybrid district-charter schools, called “renaissance schools,” (including the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a partnership between Norcross’s Cooper Foundation and KIPP’s TEAM Academy). That’s how it was eight years ago at Camden Central High where only 21% of its graduating seniors were able to pass 8th grade level tests and average SAT scores were 330 in math and 340 in verbal. That’s how it was before a series of reforms altered the city’s trajectory by calming streets and offering parents a variety of educational options for their children.
A study issued this past June by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that Camden students are showing “significant improvements in math proficiency… as well as other gains relative to the state average for certain demographics.” Those improvements are present in charter, renaissance, and district schools. The researchers note that Camden Black and Hispanic students who attend charter schools “post significantly stronger growth in reading and similar gains in math compared to district students of the same race.” Also, “Camden black and Hispanic students in renaissance schools outperform district peers of the same race in both subjects.” Nonetheless, all Camden public school students — charter, traditional, renaissance — are demonstrating year-to-year academic growth. (For more, see here.)
During that Star-Ledger interview Tom Moran asks some fair and probing questions, which Altman sometimes answers with conviction while deflecting others with aplomb. This is an education blog so I’ll try to stay in my lane.
Q. Can you concede that Norcross has done some good work in Camden, on education and crime?
Altman: I’m troubled by the conflation of the tax incentive scandal with other programs in Camden. One thing I struggled with when saw the agenda at the hearing was seeing names like Paymon Rouhanifard, the former Superintendent, and an officer from the county police force. Those folks were in a hearing about tax incentives? I fail to see how those are connected.
Altman can’t see the connection between tax incentives and public services. She should look harder. Tax incentives in impoverished cities like Camden — with historically terrible school systems — are intended to coax investors to create new housing, businesses, and jobs. Paymon Rouhanifard, appointed by Christie as superintendent after the state took over the district, is responsible for those substantial improvements in student outcomes, driven in large part by the expansion of renaissance schools and charter schools, which collectively enroll 55% of Camden public school students. (His former deputy, Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs, continues this work.)
How about the presence on the agenda of an officer from the police force? Part of reinvigorating a city is controlling crime. Camden was once one of the most violent cities in America but right now the overall crime rate is the lowest in Camden’s recorded history and its murder rate is its lowest since 1987.
Seems to me that education and safety are pretty relevant to a hearing intended to review the effectiveness of tax incentives.
One other point: Careful readers may notice that every single one of Altman’s positions aligns with those of NJ’s unions, especially NJEA. That’s no surprise because NJ Working Families Alliance, which has an annual budget of $500,000, is largely funded by NJEA and Murphy’s dark money PAC, New Directions New Jersey. Norcross’s spokeman Dan Fee says, “Her organization is being funded by some of the biggest special interests in Trenton.”
Yet Altman claims that Working Families receives about $75,000 from public sector unions, which is her annual salary. What’s going on here?
Mike Lilley of the Sunlight Policy Center says, her claim “doesn’t add up.” He writes,
How does Altman explain the $795,000 that Working Families received from the NJEA from 2009-2016 (which is $99,375 per year from the NJEA alone)? Does the $75,000 from all public sector unions include the $50,000 the NJEA paid to Working Families for GOTV efforts in the 2019 elections? And given that the public unions funds 85% of New Direction’s budget, shouldn’t 85% of the $100,000 from New Directions be considered public union money?
Lilley also notes that Working Families itself is a dark money group because it doesn’t disclose its donors.
So where are we now, besides excellent optics for Altman? Camden parents continue to benefit from a system that allows them to choose from a variety of public schools: traditional, charter, and renaissance. Student achievement is up district-wide. The city is safer.
In other words, the most essential factors for student success continue on an upward trajectory. That’s apparently bad news for so-called “progressives” who are more concerned about union prowress than the well-being of children.