The first shot fired in the post-Cleveland phase of the school voucher battle was heard in the City Council Chambers of Camden, New Jersey, on July 25, less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of parental choice programs that include religious schools. Camden is located in historically revolutionary territory, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia and Independence Hall.
In an unprecedented action, the seven members of the Camden City Council unanimously passed a resolution on July 25 asking the governor and legislature of the Garden State to make a school voucher program available to families with children in the city’s public schools. The Camden City Council is the first municipal governing body in New Jersey to request such action.
Camden is one of 30 so-called Abbott districts in New Jersey. These districts, with low property tax bases, receive supplemental funding from the state to push their per-pupil funding above many suburban districts. Based on its current budget, the Camden district has revenues of approximately $15,600 per pupil, compared to a statewide average of $12,160 for the 2001-02 school year.
“Every parent has a right and a choice to put their child in [any] school, charter or private for that matter,” said Angel Fuentes, president of the Camden City Council. “This allows parents to make that decision. I am in full support.”
The voucher measure the City Council has in mind is based on the nation’s first modern school choice program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which currently serves more than 10,000 students. The Camden model would give families a tuition voucher worth approximately $6,000 to use at any participating private school, which would be required to accept the voucher as full payment and also comply with a random admissions policy.
“This is geared toward empowering parents and giving them responsibility to keep them more involved,” said Councilmember at-large C. Louise Dobbs, a former public school teacher. “Children need the support of their parents.”
The City Council’s resolution needs support, too—from the state legislature and the governor—for vouchers to become a reality for the 18,000 children in the Camden public schools. Getting that support will be a challenge. Although nothing in the state constitution prohibits what the council is calling for, the legislature hasn’t backed voucher programs in the past and Governor James E. McGreevey, a Democrat, is opposed to vouchers.
Nevertheless, the Council vote is the first indication of how the U.S. Supreme Court ruling may be changing the way urban parents and their local representatives view parental choice reforms in relation to other education reforms that are imposed on them—which, in Camden’s case, involves the governor taking authority away from the local school board and its $282 million budget.
Seizing Control of Camden Schools
Under a $175 million recovery plan for Camden that McGreevey signed into law on July 23, the governor essentially took control of the Camden public schools and assumed veto power over all school board decisions. Elections are suspended for the next two years while current board members complete their terms and make way for new appointees. A new nine-member board will replace the current six-member elected school board, with three members appointed by McGreevey, three appointed by Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison, and only three chosen by Camden voters.
The school board’s response to the takeover was to file suit to halt the changes. The board’s action was supported by the Camden County NAACP, whose president, Colandus “Kelly” Francis, pointed out that cities and school districts with majority white populations had never been subjected to this kind of state control.
“Poverty is not a justification for denial of democratic abilities or rights of Camden residents to determine their direction and destiny like all residents of New Jersey,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
A coalition of community groups also prepared to file a civil rights lawsuit charging the recovery plan deprives residents of their right to choose their own elected officials. The recovery money wouldn’t be going to the poor in the community, anyway, according to City Councilman Ali Sloan-El, but instead would be going to those with political connections, such as contractors, lawyers, and unions.
“There’s all this talk about all the money that they’re getting to reform the city, but the regular people who live there aren’t going to see any of that money,” agreed Derrell Bradford, communications director for Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a pro-voucher grassroots group based in Newark. E3 backs the Council resolution, contending poor parents have a right to choose the environment in which their children are educated—a right routinely exercised by parents in wealthy school districts. (See “It’s All About Money and Power,” School Reform News, March 2002.)
In a court brief, Deputy Attorney General Michelle Miller pointed out Camden residents would still vote on the district’s annual budget and for the mayor, who appoints three board members. Thus, she argued, Camden’s voters are not disenfranchised by the governor’s veto power over the school board and his appointment of three board members.
E3’s Bradford doesn’t see it that way. He views the recovery plan’s treatment of Camden voters—marginalizing their authority rather than enhancing it—as an example of how Democrats take the support of urban black and Latino voters for granted. Even though people in low-income communities support vouchers by a 2:1 margin, he noted, Camden County voters supported McGreevey by almost a 2:1 margin over voucher advocate Bret Schundler in last November’s election.
Now, with its resolution in favor of vouchers, the City Council is calling on McGreevey to adopt Schundler’s position on vouchers.
“We’re not trying to eliminate public education, we’re trying to improve the system,” said Councilman Francisco Moran
For more information …
More information on the Newark-based Excellent Education for Everyone is available on the group’s Web site at www.nje3.org.