N.J. union tries to discredit a great charter operator, just because the public schools can’t keep students

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Whenever an independent charter school wants to open in a community, you can count on the local teachers union to voice its disapproval.

It makes people wonder whether the unions truly disapprove of charter schools and the type of instruction they offer, or whether they simply want to avoid competition for students, particularly since most charters do not hire union teachers.

A recent debate in Camden sheds some light on that question.

Mastery Charter Schools recently gained approval to open two new charter schools in Camden. It’s no surprise that state officials gave the green light, since the Camden City School District is generally recognized as a failed school district.

As a recent article by Laura Waters put it, “(Camden is) still the worst school system in New Jersey despite decades of strategic plans and revolving superintendents and money and good intentions.”

But the Camden Education Association, the local teachers union, was quick to condemn the new charter schools. Keith Benson, who handles public relations for the union, published an editorial in the Camden Courier Post, warning parents that they shouldn’t be tricked into sending their children to the new schools.

He wrote that parents should “not be taken by what the traveling charter school salesmen were selling, or buy what you have been told about the ineffectiveness of public schools. Do not celebrate the arrival of people trying to profit from you having fewer rights. Don’t be happy with getting charter schools that were owed to the community as true public schools. And do not support a charter education agenda that is good enough for poor black and brown children, but not for white communities.”

Forgive Benson’s poor grammar and awkward writing skills. He may have attended Camden public schools. But it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at a few of his absurd and misleading statements.

Navigating the union nonsense

For starters, what’s not to believe about the “ineffectiveness of public schools,” particularly in Camden? The miserable school performance is well documented and speaks for itself.

Ninety percent of Camden schools are in the bottom five percent of state schools, based on standardized test scores. More than 80 percent of fourth-graders score below proficiency in language arts, and the high school graduation rate is 49 percent.

Those numbers came from the Washington Post, hardly a major critic of public schools or unions.

Benson also urged readers to reject charter school officials who are “trying to profit from you having fewer rights.”

We’re not sure how parents would lose any rights by sending their children to a charter school. If anything they’re getting more choices, which can be viewed as more rights.

As for the question of profit, it’s true that Mastery Charter Schools is a for-profit company, and one of its goals is to make money.

But who cares about that if the school does its job and students learn? Public schools spend many millions of dollars each year, mostly on salaries and expensive benefits for union teachers.

Somebody is going to get the massive amount of money that government provides for education. Should it be the union teachers and bumbling bureaucrats or alternative schools? Most people would say it should go to the school (public, charter or private) that does the best job of teaching kids, period.

And there’s an extra benefit to investing in charters. If they fail, they can be closed, and they will no longer get any community money. Camden public schools have been failing for decades, but they can’t be closed, and they will continue to receive millions of tax dollars every year, regardless of their ugly performance.


Benson also urged readers to withhold their support for a charter school “agenda” that is good enough for black kids but not white kids.

We’re not sure what he meant by that. There are plenty of charter schools in predominantly white school districts across the nation. But based on what we’ve read, an education at a Mastery school would be a worthwhile experience for kids of any race, wherever they happen to live.

‘Maybe not so great for union leaders’

Mastery currently operates 15 schools in Philadelphia with a combined enrollment of 9,600 K-12 students.

Waters’ article took a close look at one of those schools, Smedley Elementary, which serves about 700 K-5 students.

Prior to 2010, when Mastery took over the school, “more kids got suspended (one in five) than scored proficient on the Pennsylvania standardized math and language assessments. The building was decrepit. Parents were unengaged,” Waters wrote.

Three years later, students at Smedley (and two similar Mastery elementary schools in Philadelphia) have posted 29 point gains in math and 20 point gains in reading, according to Waters. Incidents of violence at the three schools has dropped 97 percent.


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