Montclair is a beautiful community in New Jersey, but it is not perfect. For a town that is anchored in diversity, its education system is actually segregated with a serious and significant achievement gap.
This is simply unacceptable.
While there have been some new, positive efforts by the Montclair superintendent to address the issue, this spring my hometown was hit with a bombshell when the state of New Jersey provided first-round approval for a proposed French Language Immersion Charter School, with a final decision to be issued later this fall.
This fight for a French-immersion charter is simply not worth having, because the school does not reflect the values of Montclair and the hyper-niche French focus certainly does not address Montclair’s achievement gap.
As a strong proponent of parent empowerment and public school options for all, it also pains me to see this charter proposal play out in Montclair, because the blindness of this application takes away from the valuable argument for public school options.
Just 8 miles away from Montclair, in the city of Newark, we see firsthand how public charter schools are creating valuable and needed public school options for parents. The results are amazing.
For example, 99 percent of last year’s seniors at North Star Academy, a public charter school in Newark, will be enrolled in college this year, an unprecedented number compared to the city’s district schools.
More importantly, the great public charter schools in Newark have provided transformative opportunities to families throughout the city. Even Newark teachers in district schools have voiced their support for public charter schools.
The public charter schools in Newark that are succeeding, like North Star, KIPP, and independents like LINK Community Charter School and Great Oaks Charter School are becoming needed focal points within Newark’s neighborhoods. Most of all, they are thriving because they are hyper-focused on listening to the needs of the neighborhoods they represent, addressing specifically localized educational needs, filling voids long forgotten, and investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their city.
It is very hard to walk through the hallways or classrooms of these public schools and not be deeply moved by the smiles of hope and opportunity seen on the faces of these children. This is the sweet spot for public charter schools—creating public schools that listen, adapt and address the communities they serve.
However, as proponents of public school choice, we cannot hide away from the fact that not every public charter school is a success. We cannot fool ourselves that every public charter concept reflects the community it intends to serve or—most importantly—that every public charter school is created equal.
While we should celebrate and showcase that public charters can work, it is also our duty to move swiftly and honestly against proposals that are not providing value. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to our public education problems and there should be no one-size-fits-all when it comes to supporting public charter schools.
Opponents of public school options and parent empowerment have taken examples like this French-language immersion charter to generalize public charters. They have seized on bad ideas like this one to diminish the success of the public charters that are actually working.
By grouping diverse public charter concepts together, while clearly and deliberately ignoring those public schools that are succeeding, they have successfully created an ultimatum around the issue, making public charter schools something to be “for or against.” The irony, of course, is that there is a great deal of freedom that can define the mission and purpose of a public charter school—it does not have to be either/or.
Each public charter school needs to be judged individually and on its own merit.
Instead of the generalizations, which feed the status quo’s “for or against” narrative, we need to have a deeper conversation and ask ourselves what public charter schools are actually making a difference.
We need to ask ourselves, what is the effect of having an irrelevant concept like French Language Immersion Charter School in a town like Montclair. If we can focus on growing the right public charter schools, rather than all public charter schools, it would be hard to dismiss the great work being done by so many around the country.