Tempers Flare At Panel Discussion Promoting Opposition To Charter School Growth

Franklin C.A.R.E.S., a group opposed to charter school expansion in the township, hosted a panel discussion Feb. 22 in the Franklin High School cafeteria.

The school district’s state-mandated support of charter schools could hit $20 million over the next three years, attendees at a Feb. 22 anti-charter school growth forum were told.

The money would be needed to support the expansion of the Thomas Edison EnergySmart Charter School, the Central Jersey College Prep Charter School and the proposed Ailanthus Charter School, schools Superintendent John Ravally said.

Ravally was part of a panel presentation sponsored by Franklin Community Advocates Revitalizing our Education System (C.A.R.E.S.), held in the Franklin High School cafeteria. Other panelists were McAfee Road School PTO president Kim Gordon; Nishita Desai, parent of a former charter school student; Darcie Cimarusti, president of the Highland Park Board of Education, and Mark Weber, a blogger and Ph.D. candidate at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education in New Brunswick.

The forum – called “Protect Public Schools, Oppose Charter Growth” – was moderated by John Felix, a co-founder, along with township resident Michael Steinbrück, of Franklin C.A.R.E.S.

Franklin C.A.R.E.S. and the Latino Coalition of New Jersey on Feb. 10 asked for a federal investigation into the effect of charter schools on the state’s traditional public school districts, and also asked the state Department of Education to close TEECS and CJCP.

Tempers briefly flared during the early part of the forum when some charter school parents in attendance objected to the statements being made about the demographic makeup of charter schools, and of not being able to respond to statements being made by the panelists.

“Is this an infomercial?” asked one.

“This is a panel discussion,” Felix told him. “If you want to share your …”

“This is a panel discussion? About what?” the parent asked.

“I sense your anger, and I sense your discontent, and clearly your anger and discontent is based on hearing facts that you don’t want to hear,” Felix said.

“You have not said one thing that’s a fact,” another charter school supporter said.

Steinbrück then stopped the discussion to address the charter school supporters.

“It’s not a platform or a soapbox for people in the audience to express their views, we have lots of forums for people to do that,” he said. “We’ve been mostly respectful when debating this. We’ve had charter families, we’ve had public school families, sharing their views, sharing their experiences, sharing their perceptions of the facts.  This is a panel that we made no secret of, Franklin CA.R.E.S. is about supporting public schools and placing a moratorium on charter school expansion.”

“You’re hearing one person’s opinion and they’re going to share it,” Steinbrück said. “There’s not going to be a dialogue tonight, it’s a presentation. I invite you to do the same and I’ll come and I’ll sit very very quietly and listen. So I’m going to ask you all respectfully, to hear our panelists out. A lot of people came out here tonight to learn a perspective. It may not be your truth, but it’s somebody else’s perspective.”

“As long as you understand that it’s not the truth, it’s just a perspective,” the charter school supporter said.

Earlier in the forum, Ravally said that the district’s opposition to the township’s charter school expansion is rooted in budgetary concerns.

“This is less about your choice and more for us about the rapid expansion, the number of dollars we spend now and the potential number of dollars that could be spent,” he said.

“That, for the board, has become the issue, one of economics,” Ravally said. “There are things that we have to work on and there are things that we can do better, but the one thing that we’ve been doing in the last year, year and a half, is we’re trying to listen.”

Desai said she sent her daughter to TEECS for four years because, she said, “we wanted the smaller class sizes and the opportunities.”

“We stayed there for four years because every year I said to myself that it is going to get better,” she said.

Desai said her daughter has been doing better academically since switching to Sampson G. Smith School, has taken up a musical instrument and had a part in the recent school musical.

“On a day-to-day basis, she’s using how to think, how to analyze skills as opposed to practicing how to take tests,” she said. “I’m very happy with what I have gotten in the six months we’ve been here.”

Gordon questioned why the charter schools have a smaller percentage of learning-disabled students than do traditional public schools.

“Are they only wanting the students that are easy to educate?” she asked.

Gordon said the charter schools cannot turn away a learning disabled student but, she said, they “may tell the parents that they might not have the funding to meet the needs of their student. But they’re not discouraging the parent from sending their child to that school.”

Cimarusti said the state has “set up” traditional public school parents against charter school parents to fight with each other.

She said that if all proposed charter school expansions in Middlesex and Somerset counties are approved, “we will have 5,280 seats in charter schools in the two counties. That is the situation that the state has created. It’s not sustainable.”

Weber used statistics from the state DOE to show that charter school enrollments are not as racially proportioned as the township’s traditional public schools are.

He also said that taking into account the different demographics of the traditional and charter public schools, the schools are about on par on standardized tests.

The township’s charter schools also tend to have more teachers with less than three years of experience, he said.”You are much more likely to be taught by an inexperienced teacher if you go to a charter school,” he said.

Also in the audience was Namik Sercan, CEO of CJCPCS, who invited the group to the school’s Feb. 25 open house. He said he would have a response to the statements made at the forum during the open house presentations.


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