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For Camden students, give charter schools a shot

New Jersey's latest move since taking over the Camden City School District - laying off 206 teachers - "is just unfair," Karima Dickerson says.

New Jersey's latest move since taking over the Camden City School District - laying off 206 teachers - "is just unfair," Karima Dickerson says.

Dickerson, 14, was among hundreds of city students who walked out of class last week and protested outside the school district's downtown headquarters, a former RCA office building from the era when the city controlled its own destiny.

Local industry, jobs, and tax ratables are shadows of what they were during Camden's mid-20th century heyday, and so are its public schools. Half of the 26 were built before 1930, and 23 are, by state academic standards, failing.

Talk about unfair.

One needn't believe that Camden can cut its way to better education (huh?), or that charter schools work miracles (I don't), or that teachers unions are the problem (I'm in a union), to conclude that city kids, many of whom are poor, deserve a chance to choose better schools.

According to the district, 47 percent of students drop out before finishing high school. Of those who do graduate, only three among the 882 city students who took the SATs in 2012 did well enough to be considered college-ready.

And of 217 city 12th graders whom Camden County College tested last year in math, reading, and writing, fewer than two dozen in each category scored high enough to handle college-level courses without remedial help.

Student "outcomes" like this have helped persuade about 3,500 Camden families to "vote with their feet and [enroll in] charter schools in the district," says the state-appointed city school superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard.

"If parents in droves are choosing an alternative, what they're telling us is, 'You've failed,' " says Barbara Coscarello, a member of the district's advisory board.

"This hole was not dug overnight," Coscarello says. "We've had terrible superintendents we allowed to stay on for several years. We've had poor management and nepotism."

Rouhanifard, 32, is a lightning rod for takeover opponents, who cite his relatively thin resumé (it includes only two years of classroom experience), and his enthusiastic embrace of charters and privately managed district "renaissance" schools.

He announced the layoffs last month in light of a $75 million budget shortfall. While critics cite the $71 million the district must transfer to its 11 charter schools as a factor, Rouhanifard insists the district's staffing levels were unnecessary and unsustainable.

Camden schools "took onetime money and spent it on recurring expenses, mostly personnel," he says. "Something's got to give."

The growth of charters and the arrival of "Renaissance' schools represent a bipartisan transfer of public education dollars to private entities, state takeover critics say.

They characterize charters as skimming off the "best" (or, least-disadvantaged) students, avoiding those with special needs, and focusing on test-passing drills rather than teaching.

"The state is shoving these charter schools down the district's throat, but they're not the answer," says Jose Delgado, who served for 25 years on the city school board.

The takeover transformed the board into a toothless advisory panel - reflecting, Delgado says, the utter disenfranchisement of Camden residents.

In return, he adds, the city is getting charter schools that offer, at best, only modest improvement in student outcomes compared with those of traditional public schools.

But emerging data show charter schools statewide are narrowing the basic skills "achievement gap" between African American and Latino students and their Asian and Caucasian peers, says Carlos Perez, chief executive of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.

Lotteries that select from among charter school applicants do not provide information about income or special needs. And the charter renewal process means low-performing schools can be shut down - surely an accountability tool, Perez says.

Even a charter skeptic like my old friend David L. Kirp, the author of Improbable Scholars (Oxford University Press, 2013), which examines the success of traditional public schools in Union City, N.J., understands the rationale behind the state's takeover in Camden.

"In any place that didn't have such a consistent record of failing children, I would resist many of the steps that are being taken," he says.

"But the situation in Camden is so dire. And, critically, a focus on quality in charter schools is part of the package," Kirp adds. "So on balance this seems far and away the lesser of the evils . . . and may even turn out to be a good thing."

It very well could. And we owe it to kids like Karima Dickerson to find out.