In Your Opinion: Franklin C.A.R.E.S. Civil Rights Complaint Is Valid and Meritorious

By John P. Felix, Somerset.

The recently filed Civil Rights Complaint against the expansion of existing, and creation of new charter schools in our community has elicited a healthy exchange of narratives on social media. Unfortunately some of these responses are devoid of logic, while others present a combative/declarative “war-like” tone. Nevertheless, we’ll endeavor to keep the conversation courteous and fact-based.

As eloquently penned by the Co-Founder of Franklin C.A.R.E.S, Michael Steinbrück, in one of his recent posts, the objective of Franklin C.A.R.E.S. is to intelligently debate the issue of charter schools’ expansion and evaluate their impact, both fiscally and educationally, on our district’s traditional schools. We are committed to engage the public in a respectful, non-judgmental series of discussions that are based on measurable data and free of false accusations and presumed intentions. Let’s continue our dialogue befitting of the civil discourse that reflects the tolerance of our township residents.

With that said, it’s very important to note that the state’s evaluation of a charter school’s organizational performance is guided by the equitability and organizational soundness of the school. On the issue of “Access and Equity,” charter schools are obligated by statute to “serve and meet the needs of all students, especially the highest need students requiring special education services, students who are English Language Learners, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and other underserved or at-risk populations.” They also “must demonstrate that their recruitment, application, admissions, lottery and enrollment policies and practices are fair and equitable, as required by law.” Additionally, charter schools “must demonstrate that they comply with state and federal laws relating to special education students and students who are English Language Learners.”

Franklin C.A.R.E.S. wholeheartedly understands the innate responsibility of parents to seek the best educational opportunities for their children, and is mindful of the allure that charter schools claim to offer. The fact is that despite the penchant of the “lottery” as a presumed unbiased component of the application process, the enrollment data of our existing charter schools, Central Jersey College Prep Charter School (CJCP) and Thomas Edison EnergySmart Charter School (TEECS), clearly demonstrates a pattern that is antithetical to the statistical authenticity of randomness, vis a vis, the “lottery.”

By means of example, the statistical enrollment anomaly of TEECS’ 67% Asian students, compared to Franklin Township Public Schools’ 17%, is alarming when one considers the most recent Census data indicating 20% Asian American families in Franklin Township. In the case of CJCP, its deviation from the statistical norm is daunting; for the past three school years, CJCP’s recruitment, enrollment and admission practices resulted in a “lottery” system which did not yield a single student with limited English language proficiency. Taken together, it’s difficult to fathom a credible explanation for the enrollment policies of TEECS’s and CJCP’ boards of trustees.

Section 18A:36A-7 (Student admissions to charter school) of the CHARTER SCHOOL PROGRAM ACT OF 1995 (N.J.S.A. 18A:36A) states that “A charter school shall be open to all students … and shall not discriminate in its admission policies or practices on the basis of intellectual or athletic ability, measures of achievement or aptitude, status as a handicapped person, proficiency in the English language, or any other basis that would be illegal if used by a school district.” Additionally, section e of 18A:36A-8 (Enrollment preference) clearly states “the admission policy of the charter school shall, to the maximum extent practicable, seek the enrollment of a cross section of the community’s school age population including racial and academic factors.”

Franklin C.A.R.E.S, in its complaint, highlights enrollment data of CJCP and TEECS, demonstrating that the cohorts of students mentioned in the statute are indeed significantly underrepresented in their student population. Once again, our argument/opposition is not with the parents of these publicly funded-privately operated corporate institutions, but with the apparent violation of the Charter School Program Act. We respectfully request the commissioner’s office preform its due diligence, as required by section 18A:36A-16, of ensuring that the charter schools are meeting their goals, are in compliance with their respective charter and that state board regulations concerning assessment, testing, civil rights, and student health and safety are being met.

The commissioner is also mandated to study “the impact of the charter school program on resident districts’ students, staff, parents, educational programs, and finances.” Equally important is the commissioner’s obligation to report on “the comparative demographics of student enrollments” in Franklin Township Public schools and the operating charter schools, TEECS and CJCP. The comparison shall include “race, gender, socioeconomic status, enrollment of special education students, and enrollment of students of limited English proficiency.”

Based on the enrollment data of both charter schools, Franklin C.A.R.E.S. is unable to arrive at any other conclusion other that the application process, despite the state-approved template application form used by these schools, is biased toward families who do not have children of special needs or those with limited English proficiency.

The rather simplistic and somewhat naive rationale that the “lottery” paradigm of charter school admission satisfies the criteria of fair and equitable practices is often made to defend and justify the enrollment policies of these privately operated, publicly-funded institutions. We contend that since multiple sources of evidence are employed to evaluate a charter school’s organizational performance, any of these pieces of evidence can be subjected to manipulation. For example, the admission and enrollment materials, both of which are evaluative pieces of evidence, can be selectively distributed to ZIP codes of a charter school’s choosing, even though its application is readily available online. Since the “lottery” process occurs months after the enrollment materials’ distributions to selected neighborhoods, and prior to the review of the application forms, the awarding of a “lottery” can be seen as a forgone conclusion.

On its surface the “lottery” has the perception of fairness, and so it may be; however, its downstream occurrence cannot negate the fact that recruitment of students to ensure a greater probability of educational success for the school is an attractive calculative component of the school’s Board of Trustees. Unlike a charter schools’ board, the Superintendent of our traditional public schools cannot select its schools’ student body composition.

The field of enrollment/admission process is not level; hence, the comparison between charter schools and traditional public schools is inherently, and by definition, invalid and superfluous.

Franklin C.A.R.E.S. is resolved to continue its strong advocacy for an inclusive public education system where every child, regardless of learning prowess, is warmly welcomed to an academic climate of holistic learning and growth.

John P. Felix is co-founder of Franklin C.A.R.E.S.

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