Charter Schools

The Slow and Glorious Death of America's Worst School System

Per-pupil spending of $27,500 hasn't helped Camden's schools.


Camden, New Jersey is the poorest and most dangerous city in America. ||| Blake Bollinger/Creative Commons
Blake Bollinger/Creative Commons

The public school system is at "Def-Con 1," warned the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, the poorest and most dangerous city in America. In an open letter to the governor, the mayor described "horrendous conditions" in the schools, warning that the situation had "reached a critical stage." Camden's school system "relegates too many of our young men to criminal careers" and "lifetimes of dependency," he wrote. 

That letter was dated 1998, but it could have been written yesterday. Then-Mayor Milton Milan (his heart wasn't entirely in the right place, as he was later jailed for corruption) complained of aging school buildings and collapsing ceilings; Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard recently found that school buildings "are often in disrepair and no longer adequate as educational sites."

Twenty-three years ago, crusading ex-Marine Gordon Sunkett stood on a six-foot platform for more than 60 consecutive hours to draw attention to out-of-control violence in Camden's schools; on a recent listening tour, Superintendent Rouhanifard found that "half of elementary school students say they don't feel safe going to the bathroom or walking in the hallways." In 1998, researchers at Rowan University caused waves by reporting that 50% of Camden students dropped out of high school; last year, Camden's dropout rate was 49%.

"Nothing ever changes in Camden," says Derrell Bradford, the executive director of NYCAN, an education reform nonprofit. "It's a great human tragedy."

Camden's school system can't be saved—but it can disappear. Every year, more students flee the city's dangerous and dilapidated schools for privately-run public charters that do a much better job at keeping them safe and preparing them for the workforce. In New Jersey, charters siphon money away from the traditional school system, which is one of their best features.

Within the next decade, the Camden school district is on course to enter a death spiral, sending the city the way of New Orleans, which has replaced almost all of its traditional schools with charters. Paymon Rouhanifard, who's wisely made improving school safety his first concern, is probably the best superintendent Camden has ever had, but he won't be able to turn around the school system. Rather, he's the perfect man to turn out the lights.

Let's dwell for a moment on what didn't work in Camden: showering the schools with money. In 1981, New Jersey's Education Law Center (ELC) filed Abbott v. Burke, a landmark case aimed at forcing the Garden State to boost aid to poor school districts. The lawsuit reflected the worldview of the ELC's executive director Marilyn Morheuser, a former nun and NAACP organizer, who believed endemic poverty could be solved with boatloads of government money. Gov. Thomas Kean (R-N.J.) and his schools commissioner Saul Cooperman challenged the ELC's lawsuit on the grounds that giving more funding to school districts with a record of "mismanagement, waste, and corruption" could perversely make matters worse for poor kids. Morheuser, a gifted litigant, prevailed in court, and New Jersey changed its funding formula so the poorest districts now get the most money.

And nothing changed.

Camden, NJ. ||| Blake Bollinger/Creative Commons
Blake Bollinger/Creative Commons

In 2013-14, per pupil spending in Camden was a staggering $27,500, or more than $9,000 above the state average. A recent article in the The Philadelphia Inquirer offered a glimpse at how Camden's school system could receive so much money and yet remain so impoverished. In 2013, the district spent $5 million on textbooks and technology, but many of those resources never made it to the classroom, leaving teachers to conduct online fundraisers for their basic needs. The city has an almost unmatched 4-1 student-employee ratio and 9-1 student-teacher ratio, but some classrooms are wildly overstaffed while others are wildly understaffed. That's because the teacher's union contract doesn't allow the district to make staffing decisions based on need and merit. When the district laid off 206 employees earlier this year, the most senior and well-paid teachers kept their jobs, and the lowest paid staffers were axed, in accordance with the district's collective bargaining agreement with the union.

Fed-up Camden parents played a major role in launching New Jersey's charter school movement. In the early 1990s, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, a professor at Rutgers who'd spent time as a social worker in Camden and observed first hand what was happening in the schools, began developing an idea for LEAP, an independent community school that would stress local decision making, parental engagement, merit pay, and wrap around social services.

As Bonilla-Santiago recounts in her recent memoir, The Miracle on Cooper Street: Lessons from an Inner City, she hired two parents to go door to door to recruit support from the community. A group of about five hundred Camden parents, many unemployed and on welfare, became Bonilla-Santiago's "foot soldiers in the school reform battle," she writes. Bonilla-Santiago found that the most important issue for Camden's parents was school safety, though most "couldn't even dream or speculate about [a safe school] because they had never experienced it." 

When the state began considering passage of a charter school law, Bonilla-Santiago courted the support of Sen. John Ewing (R-16th District), who became a key backer of the bill. During hearings on the law, Bonilla-Santiago and her cadre of Camden parents made frequent trips to the state capital, packing the legislative chambers. 

LEAP Academy is Camden's first charter school. |||

In 1995, LEAP Academy became one of the first charter schools authorized in New Jersey. Today, the school has 1,500 students occupying a complex of five modern buildings in downtown Camden. There are about 1,200 hundred kids on a waiting list. In its most recent state performance report, the school posted a 96.8 percent four-year graduation rate and had zero dropouts. LEAP kids don't post exceptional test scores—for example, not a single student scored above the 1550 benchmark on the SATs—but an impressive 98 percent of juniors and seniors took the college achievement tests. By comparison, at Camden's traditional Woodrow Wilson High School only 26 percent of juniors and seniors took the SATs or ACTs.

LEAP spends about about $15,000 per pupil, or $12,500 less than the Camden school district. "We've proven that it's not about the money," says Bonilla-Santiago. 

Today, there are 10 charter schools operating in Camden, serving 4,250 students, or 27 percent of all Camden's public school kids. That's up from 22 percent the prior year. In the fall, three new charters are slated to open, with ambitions of eventually serving a combined 9,600 students. That would turn Camden into an all-charter city.

Both New Jersey's 1995 charter school law and the 2011 Urban Hope Act—a law that created a second school authorization process and has put Camden's charter movement on steroids—require traditional school districts to transfer funding to charters on a per-pupil basis, so the money follows the kid. The annual transfer payment from the Camden City School District has more than doubled in the past three years to a projected $72 million this coming school year—and it will keep climbing.

Why are charter schools better than traditional public schools? They're not necessarily. The only difference is that charters have the autonomy to devise approaches that are tailored to the particular needs of their students without having to abide by blanket mandates handed down from main office bureaucrats. And if they fail, they'll close. The idea is to mirror the creative destruction of a private market. There may be some elements of the traditional school system that parents decide are worth salvaging. Camden's two magnet high schools, for example, are looking into breaking away from the district and becoming charters.

New Jersey still exerts far too much control over charters—for example, test scores are the primary criteria for judging a school's performance—which could undermine their efforts to serve the needs of students and parents. A safe and nurturing environment for students isn't always reflected on a bubble sheet, which is why market demand should be the sole criteria for determining if a school stays open.

Mayor Milan's 1998 warning letter may still apply to Camden schools today. Let's hope that 16 years from now, there won't be a school system to generalize about.

NEXT: The DEA's 'Four Decades of Impeding and Rejecting Science'

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  1. Within the next decade, writes Jim Epstein, the Camden school district is on course to enter a death spiral, sending the city the way of New Orleans, which has almost completely replaced its traditional schools with charters.

    Good news? This must not be the P.M. links.

  2. Has anyone set up a Fist suicide watch yet?

    1. I thought you were supposed to be watching him!

      1. I remain in slumber until it is time. Or I might just go do something else instead.

  3. Ou sont les liens d’apres-midi?

    1. English, mothafuqua, do you speak it?

      1. “What?”

  4. The thought of the president actually doing something that he says is simply hilarious. Disentangle science and politics? Right, like that’s gonna happen.

    1. You’re in the wrong comment thread. You must’ve attended school in Camden.

  5. In 1998, researchers at Rowan University caused waves by reporting that 50% of Camden students dropped out of high school; last year, Camden’s dropout rate was 49%.

    So the answer is obvious: A 98% increase in the funding difference between 1998 and 2013 would eliminate the problem.

    1. Just to keep the number straight, inflation added 50% to numbers in that time period. So the increase was only what is above that.

    2. No, the solution is to defund research I to dropout rates at Rowan. Duh.

  6. fucking squirlz, I reloaded and ended up on a different fucking article and didn’t double check. Not that this will actually get posted.

    1. It’s always the squirrels’ fault, isn’t it, BSub?

  7. Server squirrels and now no pm links. Are the Koch brothers going broke or something?

  8. Now that’s a shithole.

  9. Too bad, you would have liked my link.

    Just Google “Robespierre” and “abortion.”

    You know you want to.

  10. If this continues into the evening I’m calling off tonight’s < i The Independents.

    1. Yes, we might remind Welch that the loss of commenting abilities at Reason would cost his show 90% of its viewers.

      I would not watch on a regular basis if it weren’t the live commenting this website offers.

      1. “I would not watch on a regular basis if it weren’t the live commenting this website offers.”

        But don’t you want to see the sexy aftershow?

        1. Does Kennedy continue to talk over them in the locker room?

    2. < i The Independents

      I’ve noticed you do the same thing every time you write that.

      1. For almost a whole week, Welch effed up the italics tag in his titles.

  11. This must all be a part of Holder’s Anti-American Witch-Hunt.

  12. Thoroughly change the public school system into a private voucher system.

    -All towns are banned from levying real estate taxes for schools, and so the state does it
    -The state then administers that money to parents/guardians. Complete egalitarianism, every child gets exactly the same amount of funding monthly or bi-weekly
    -Schools are free to take the money and offer up education. No regulations thereof. As long as the schools is actually teaching something, it’s fine. Private accreditations are left up to the free market. Price controls not necessary, because while the schools could charge more than the vouchers, there’s still plenty of money from the voucher to provide regular schooling, and even worst case scenario the vouchers will make the amounts parents have to pay be adjusted for more affordability, since the voucher is still there.
    -Some minimum regulations preventing towns from outlawing schools through zoning

    1. -The existing schools would go over to township ownership, and they could rent out or sell the space to the privately-run schools. The towns would literally go from spending money on schools to making money instead overnight.
      -Broad liability protection for the schools will be necessary, as, among other issues, multiple schools and/or classes may run out of the same building
      -No income taxes for teachers or schools (NJ has an income tax)
      -To deal with the “appropriate education” clauses in federal law, the state deals with kids who have supposed disorders, and covers for this situation both legally and with the schooling. Part of this would involve stopping psychiatrists from throwing “autism” around like it’s describing someone’s hair color, so the state would step in and stop that malarchy.
      -Every school or class being held has to register with the DOT, so that buildings hosting above a certain number of classes get the “slow school zone sign”, to sort of keep the school zone law. Obviously a few places here and there where classes are held would miss this, but it’s a small price to pay.

      1. -people would finally be free to choose different yearly schedules as opposed to summers-off. Because, you know, the best way to learn things is to not do them at all for 5 months at a time.
        -Doesn’t federal money only go to accredited schools? This part is an issue, as the people of the state don’t want to lose federal funding. I don’t have much of a solution for this issue


        OK, but how do you do any of this poilitically?

        Well first off, we VOTE for it. We need a god damned referendum in this state, and in the whole country. We need to start being a democracy

        For dealing with the feds, and threats of cutting off federal money: we call their bluff. They want to cut the federal money, we’ll stop paying income taxes. New Jersey is hardly the place for an anti-federal stand, but if the people will have already voted for it in this hypothetical, they wouldn’t take too kindly to the feds trying to bully us out of our own elected laws

    2. Show us the large country where this works and we’ll follow their model.

      However, if you thought it up in a dope smoking haze….we’ll reconsider.

      1. sweden has lots of charter schools and they do well

        charter schools have been outperforming public schools here

        it’s not a far stretch to imagine school vouchers would do even better

  13. You know there are very few things in life one can count on. Reason posting AM and PM links at 6 am and 1:30 pm, respectively, ought to be one of them.

    1. Serious uses them to know when to take a dump. He’s very regular. It’s from all that flax seed he eats.

      1. You’re thinking of Shrike. He’s the one who shits all over the thread.

    2. Dude. They are posted at 9:00am and 4:30pm.

      1. CRIPPLE FIGHT!!!!

      2. And assuming anyone can reply to this. My reply after that reply would be: “The Secret Service has a sarcasm detector they want to sell you.”

        1. Yeah – that was awesome.

          Still – CRIPPLE FIGHT!

  14. “Why are charter schools better than traditional public schools?”

    I could rent some office space, hire a dozen people off of Monster to teach, find a personal trainer to do the PE, and have a better school than Camden’s running by September. Might not be better than Mendham or Chatham at first, but it couldn’t be worse than Camden.

    1. Mad Scientist’s School of Hard Knocks is better than Camden.

    2. You’re still short a Principal, 2 Vice Principals, Dean, Custodian, Guidance Counselor, Nurse and a Chef.
      Also, a couple of assistants for each.

      1. Yes, and unions. What about the unions? How can we teach children without the union/government monopoly? How will they ever learn political correctness and how to be professional victims. How will they grow up to be progressive voters? You’ll just ruin everything.

        1. Yes, we need to pay for home schools so the American Talibs can teach creationism and AR-15 loading to their broods. This way, they will be fine churchgoers and citizens.

          The right will then expand greatly…..

          Answer me one question, though. Why is the world’s most successful regional economy and educational system – in the most liberal area(s) of the US? Namely, the Bay Area. Of course, you could add Boston to the mix, but I don’t want to confuse you.

          Based on your outlook, it would seem that Altoona, PA should harbor the new American Economy. But it doesn’t. Why?

          1. You think that the Bay Area has universally good schools? Ever heard of a little place called Oakland? And that’s not the only problem. There are plenty of other shitty districts in the Bay Area. And when you look at entire states CA is decidedly on the bottom tier. Boston is equally hit or miss. Don’t you care about equality?

            Holy shit, but you’re stupid.

            1. They just make stuff up. Always have, always will.

  15. Camden’s is an Abbott district. Abbott district receive funding from the state using some type of formula that equals something like 1.5 times the state average. So, a regular district might spend the Jersey average of 10k per pupil, but Abbott districts spend significantly more than that.

    Abbott districts were instituted more than 20 years ago. The additional funding over this reasonably long period of time has increased graduation rates and test results by approximately zero percent in every Abbott district.

    1. The additional funding over this reasonably long period of time has increased graduation rates and test results by approximately zero percent in every Abbott district.

      Well, I’m full-on shocked now. Holy cow! Whoda thunk THAT would happen! Wow!

  16. If New Jersey doesn’t keep throwing tax dollars at public school administrators and teachers it must mean they hate children.

    1. The NJ Supreme Court agrees.

  17. In 2013-14, per pupil spending in Camden was a staggering $27,500

    Christ, that exceeds the annual income of any number of families in my area.

  18. Do the charter schools stop the kids from being abused, sent to jail for drugs, stabbed, murdered or otherwise subject to the daily grind in our many havens of poverty?

    (I volunteer in Camden with youth, so don’t try to snow me).

    Oh, I’m with all this alternative stuff. But the problem is much larger than public schools. The problem is that the normal institutions which have been established simply cannot handle the many ills of our society (In this case, racism, poverty, pollution, unemployment, violence, etc.)

    BTW, I did mentor some kids who did really well – and, yes, they typically went to Catholic Schools because no human being can go to those unsafe public schools and thrive. You can’t grow flowers in poisoned soil.

    It has little to do with unions or public schools and more to do with (now) thinking outside the box for solutions to very drastic problems. I’m for any solution that works. Being it on.

    1. Oh, I’m with all this alternative stuff. But the problem is much larger than public schools

      No. No it isn’t.

      1. Ah, so your version of charter schools send the teachers home with the kids, builds them nicer homes, removes the rats and roaches, cleans up the heroin, etc.

        That’s fantastic!

    2. You want a solution? Fine, vote progressive fascist assholes out of office.

      1. We did, We voted in the guy that the owners of this site support – CC. He piled onto the budget and we have some of the highest unemployment and taxes in the country.

        Now he’s taking a tour around the country telling you Kochians how great he is.

        Lots of good that did us.

        My county in NJ was 100% GOP. Town went broke even though it was full of rich people. They couldn’t help themselves..they want the best of everything, so they took out large bonds and sold the future down the toilet.

        We voted out those democRATS and put that great GW and his friends in charge of our country! We went from a Stock market at 14K to 6K, into two wars and into the worse recession in 80 years.

        Sorry, but voting out the Dems didn’t work. You need to think a bit harder.

    3. “Do the charter schools stop the kids from being abused, sent to jail for drugs, stabbed, murdered or otherwise subject to the daily grind in our many havens of poverty?”

      Does peanut butter make my dog fly? No. Schools aren’t supposed to do any of those things. Stop expecting them to.

      We don’t have any ills that weren’t here during the rest of human history. The problem is that other “normal institutions” you mention are just as badly broken as the public schools. Government is the box. Think outside of it.

      1. Well, the institutions are the box – that’s what institutions are designed to be! In most cases, that’s a good thing.

        But the same solutions do not apply everywhere and at all times.

        I am 100% for total reform of education in this country….which is certainly not a political slant! Happiness and the General Welfare depend on good education. Times have changed – and so must our institutions.

        You must remember that the “conservative” approach to institutions is usually not to touch them – tradition and history being the usual marks of that type of world view.

        On the other hand, the progressive view would be to always measure and think what is NEXT. The internet and tablet computers can help revolutionize education. So can increased participation of the citizens. As an example, I enjoy teaching and now that I sold my business, would be willing to do a lot of it for free.

        But the system – even the Charter Schools – don’t yet crowdsource. Maybe we need to develop the app!

        I think this is one subject that most folks – for all sides of the political spectrum – know needs work.

        Admins – that was what really broke the bank in my own suburban district. They had dozens of folks in the High Schools making over 130K. What did these “vice principals” and other do? Not much that I could see. They did have an “PR” department.

        1. “Admins – that was what really broke the bank in my own suburban district.”

          That is a perfect example. Glenn Reynolds has been crusading against administrative bloat in higher ed for years, and the same thing is happening in K-12.

          Administrators multiply because adding more administrators is the path of least resistance to meeting the mandates that layers and layers of governments pile up on schools. Checking off regulatory requirements becomes the purpose of the institution, because it’s has consequences. If poor kids get mugged in the bathroom it’s a darn shame. If they take away your funding because you discriminated against a transgender cheerleader, or because your lunch program didn’t have the proper selection of snacks, well, that’s a real disaster.

  19. No surprise, government inefficiency,
    I went to school in a two room old order Amish parochial school in Ohio, parents took turns cleaning and maintaining the building and the school board membership rotated every year among the parents of students, of course the Amish system cannot in all aspects for obvious reasons be applied to much larger and complex schools-But nevertheless important lessons in efficiency and parent participation could be learned, as well as it being a local community based operation free from bureaucratic impediments.

  20. Required reading for anyone interested or involved in k-12 public education would be an accounting of what most would call “The Kansas City School Debacle”.

    Unlimited funding for schools has been tried, and it was a colossal, massive failure. (May Russell Clark rot in Hell.)

    1. It wasn’t a failure to those whose pockets were lined. This is “economic activity”. Part of the free market is to grab free money when it’s available. The least work you can do for the most return is the goal of free market economics.

  21. “Well, the institutions are the box – that’s what institutions are designed to be! In most cases, that’s a good thing.”

    How is being in a box a good thing? So people are easier to control, increases conformity, gets rid of some of those crazy ideas people get? … right. Just because a solution makes a problem easier to control doesn’t mean it’s a good solution.

    Some people need more externally-applied structure in their lives to compensate for too little provided in early childhood, and Camden is likely a perfect candidate for that idea – but “institutions” should not, and simply cannot, substitute for discipline and morals. They can instruct on how to achieve those things for yourself, but cannot “do it for them”. Schools can’t , and shouldn’t try to, solve drug use or absentee parenting. The sooner you quit thinking they can, the closer you’ll get to a true understanding/solution of what needs to happen in schools, and what needs to be addressed elsewhere.

  22. Public education in New Jersey cities is massively corrupt. Go to one of the administrative buildings. I doubt you’ll find leaking pipes, peeling paint, and falling ceiling tiles there. While you’re there, count the number of BMWs and other luxury vehicles in the parking lot.

    Camden and cities like it are run like Third World countries.

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