|1-9-12 Urban Hope Act on Lame Duck agenda today|
Star Ledger column -Braun: NJEA support for private management of public schools displays weakness, cynicism
NJ Spotlight - George Norcross Discusses Urban Hope Act, Other Education Reforms…South Jersey powerbroker talks to NJ Spotlight about how Camden's first 'renaissance school' could be under construction in a year's time
Published: Monday, January 09, 2012, 8:15 AM
New Jersey is about to take a giant step toward opening public schools to profit-making management companies, and the effort has a most unlikely supporter — the New Jersey Education Association.
In a move that displays either its weakness or cynicism — or both — the state’s largest teachers’ union has joined forces with archenemy Gov. Chris Christie and the powerful Camden County Democratic machine of George Norcross to endorse the "Urban Hope Act," which would allow private companies to build and manage public schools using taxpayer money.
"We have always supported public school choice,’’ said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the NJEA’s chief lobbyist.
Schnitzer’s words sharply contrast with previous comments from union leaders who condemned the same bill the organization now endorses. In June, for example, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian released a statement that read:
"The proposal is nothing more than an attempt to walk away from the state’s obligation to provide a thorough and efficient education to every student by handing over our students and our tax dollars to private companies."
The union’s reversal of position came after the bill was amended to guarantee bargaining and tenure rights for teachers in privately managed schools — as many as 12 so-called "renaissance schools" slated for Newark, Camden and Trenton.
But the NJEA endorsed the proposed law while it still contained a provision that would require direct public financing of the construction of schools managed by private firms along with an exemption from competitive bidding laws.
That part of the law was excised — the companies will have to find private financing for constructing their schools, but they will be able to pay back those loans with school aid, public money. They still will not have to comply with bidding laws and the private firms will have access to publicly-purchased land, including an $11 million tract in Camden that George Norcross has sought in the past for a charter school.
"We’re not experts on the intricacies of bond financing," Schnitzer said. "We’re concerned with education and the rights of our members. Once those concerns were met, we felt we could support the legislation.’’
The union’s flip-flop shatters the unity of a coalition that has consistently opposed the Christie administration’s efforts to bring privatization to public education. It left spokesmen for some of those groups literally speechless.
"You have to ask the union about that,’’ said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. Sciarra continues to oppose the bill, likely to be passed today, the last day of the legislative session. The law center is financially supported by the NJEA.
"It was an NJEA deal,’’ said Joseph Del Grosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO (AFT). "They blatantly sold Newark out.’’
The NJEA does not represent Newark teachers, although it does represent Camden and Trenton instructors. Of the three districts in the bill, only Newark, a state-run system, does not have local control. The bill requires local school boards to investigate the private organizations seeking to start "renaissance" schools.
"Those are important checks and balances," Del Grosso said. "Newark won’t have them."
Privately, union allies say it had no choice but to support the bill. They say the union hopes its collaboration with the Camden County machine might forestall legislative action on Christie proposals the NJEA fears more than it does private management of public schools — private school vouchers and tenure reform.
"The passage of the Urban Hope Act certainly will remove the logic behind the argument for vouchers,’’ Schnitzer said. She denied reaching a quid pro quo for the union’s support of the Norcross bill.
Del Grosso called the imminent passage of the bill "demoralizing," and added:
"Renaissance schools will be owned and operated by corporations and hedge funds and individuals whose prime objective is profit that will come at the expense of Newark’s children."
George Norcross' name is inextricably linked to the Urban Hope Act -- the seemingly unstoppable legislation that would permit private organizations to build and manage public schools in New Jersey.
His brother Donald is the bill's chief sponsor in the state Senate. His Camden ties and stated visions for revamping the city's schools are mirrored in the legislation.
Now that the Urban Hope Act looks all but certain for passage in the legislature today, NJ Spotlight caught up with the South Jersey businessman and political leader this weekend and asked him to explain what he has in mind.
"I think the Urban Hope Act will be the most important thing to happen to Camden in the last 20 years," he said during the phone interview.
The law, which was voted out of committee last week, calls for up to four “renaissance schools” to be built in each of three low-performing districts. The schools would typically be run by nonprofits, similar to charter schools but with less red tape.
"If we are able to build four new schools, we're talking more than $100 million in investment and, more importantly, giving an opportunity to Camden children for a new day."
Norcross said his family's foundation and Cooper Health System, of which he is chairman, will likely team up to lead the first school proposal. He stressed that Cooper would not be financing the school but would contribute its brand and specific services, such as health clinics and mentoring.
"We'll be strategic partners," Norcross said. "We are not in the business of operating schools. That is not our expertise."
The school would likely be run by a nonprofit charter management organization hired for the project, he said. Norcross said he is already working separately with charter schools in the city to help them grow as well. Although for-profits are afforded a limited role in the law, Norcross downplayed any place for them in his plans, other than as service providers or construction contractors.
Norcross said he envisioned other nonprofit entities in the city and in the other two proposed pilot districts -- Newark and Trenton -- would step up to do the same.
"A lot of people will be competing for these opportunities," he said. "It could be a Prudential, PSE&G. I think the proposals will be stronger if it has that publicly known brand."
Norcross said ideally his proposal would be built on the Lanning Square site next to Cooper, long eyed for a new school through the state's court-ordered school construction program but stalled now under the Schools Development Authority.
"Lanning Square would bring us the most pride, right in our backyard," he said.
But he stressed that the first decision under the legislation must come from the Camden school board and city leaders, and any proposal would also need to be approved by the state. The bill specifically calls for the SDA to provide possible sites for these projects.
Still, given Norcross' stature as an influential powerbroker in South Jersey, if not statewide, as well as a close ally of top legislative leaders, his words are not simply speculation. He believes construction could start within a year.
"I think you'll see the administration moving quickly on these projects," he said.
In the interview, Norcross also took the opportunity to weigh in on some other school reform proposals pending in the legislature, ones that Gov. Chris Christie said will be among his priorities in 2012.
The big one is the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a corporate tax credit program that would fund vouchers or scholarships for low-income students in low-performing districts to attend private schools. Norcross has been a big champion of the long-debated proposal, and he said yesterday he still strongly supports it, but in a pilot program limited to a few districts. Such a proposal has been in development under the leadership of state Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden).
"It needs to return to its original roots," Norcross said. "It needs to be a pilot with a beginning and an end, in four or five districts that are clearly failing districts and with substantial bipartisan support."
He said he tried hard to see it approved last summer, but ultimately could not pull the votes, including from Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex). "That is obviously a challenge," he said. "I did my best to persuade her last summer, and I was not successful."
This year he sees the chances as a little better, but only a little. He said the various versions of the bill that have added and subtracted districts by the month don't help.
"I give it a better than 50-50 chance," he added.
"It's a little tough to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," he added.
Garden State Coalition of Schools