Chris Christie banked one of his biggest policy proposals as governor of New Jersey on one idea: that a new type of charter school with the ability and mandate to construct better facilities would transform the Camden City School District from one of the worst-performing, most corrupt systems in the state to one that successfully educates kids in one of the poorest cities in America.
Nearly a decade after Christie won approval for that idea, the district is under state control and improving its test scores. It’s also facing a $40 million deficit, crumbling school buildings, a toothless school board, a community that can’t afford the tax raises necessary to support their city and a well-funded charter sector hungry to recruit new students.
And as schools across the nation are preparing to reopen for in-person learning in the fall, desperate to start anew after nearly a year of learning lost to the pandemic, four public schools in Camden may be shuttered for good.
The proposed closures are tearing at the fabric of the community, pitting the leader of the local teachers union against the district’s homegrown superintendent, parents against neighbors and residents against the state.
“What’s at stake is kids’ lives,” said Naeha Dean, the district’s former chief of staff who’s now executive director of the Camden Education Fund.
Katrina McCombs, the state-appointed district superintendent, said delivering the closure news to her community — one in which she was raised, educated and employed — was “emotionally draining,” and “painful,” but necessary.
“There have been cards that have been dealt to me,” McCombs, who has been superintendent since 2018, said in an interview. “It would be selfish for me to know some of the conditions that exist, that we know we don’t have the funds to keep up with … and not make the hard decision to do something in service of what’s best for our students.”
While Christie staked his education policy reputation on Camden’s success, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has largely remained hands-off, even as the state takeover continues with no end in sight.
“The state superintendent is responsible for the day-to-day operations of a state-operated school district. Those decisions are made locally,“ Mike Yaple, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, said in a statement. “The Department provides support and technical assistance to state-operated districts when needed.”
The Murphy administration declined several requests by POLITICO to speak directly with Angelica Allen-McMillan, the acting state education commissioner.
Christie blasted his successor for not being more involved.
“Where is the Murphy administration? Why haven’t they made a commitment to this?” Christie said in an interview. “This governor doesn’t talk about education at all except in cliches. … Cliches are fine on bumper stickers, but changing urban education is hard work. You have to do more than just flap your lips.”
Mahen Gunaratna, a spokesperson for Murphy, said in an email that the governor “is committed to undoing the damage of the Christie era by fully funding our public schools and giving our educators the respect and support they deserve.”
Gunaratna said Christie is launching “empty attacks” and criticized his administration for spending “eight years skirting his responsibility to fund public schools while attacking educators.”
“Unlike the previous administration, the Murphy Administration is deeply engaged with the Camden community and is working with parents, educators, and the school district to find collaborative solutions to the challenges facing the Camden School District,” Gunaratna said.
According to McCombs, the district is not only staring down a massive deficit, but also $122 million in needed repairs to school buildings, some of which are over a century old. She called some of the conditions at the four schools slated for closure “deplorable” during a Jan. 26 school board meeting during which she showed pictures of disintegrating ceiling tiles, moldy walls and rust-covered bathrooms.
The Schools Development Authority, the state agency responsible for handling all of the construction funding and renovation of district schools in Camden, is out of money and facing a challenge in state Supreme Court.
What’s more, the four buildings are, on average, 30 percent empty, McCombs said.
Camden, a district that once taught more than 16,000 students, today has 19 schools that enroll 6,925 students. Similar-sized districts in the state have far fewer schools: The Atlantic City School District educates 6,700 students in 11 schools; the Franklin Township School District has 7,000 students in 10 schools; the Linden Public School District has 6,200 students in 11 schools; and the North Brunswick School District enrolls about 6,000 students in six schools.
All of which seems to make closing the four Camden schools — Henry C. Sharp Elementary, Alfred Cramer College Preparatory Lab School, Ulysses Wiggins School and Yorkship Family School — a necessary decision on paper.
But McComb’s most vocal opponent, Camden Education Association President Keith Benson, says the neighborhood schools can and should be saved.
Benson said neighborhood schools contribute something immeasurable to the communities they serve. The state — and local lawmakers — should be protecting and growing their traditional schools rather than closing them and driving kids to charter and renaissance schools which are privately governed and have opaque financial management, he said.
The four closures, if approved by Allen-McMillan, would impact approximately 1,200 students, 150 staff members, and would leave one city neighborhood without a traditional public school.
Carla Moreira, whose son has special needs and attends Sharp School, spoke up at the Jan. 26 virtual board meeting to praise the programs at the school that have changed her son’s life.
If the debate is about school choice and parental choice, she said, “I choose Sharp.”
What’s manifesting in Camden was launched during Christie’s eight years as governor.
Christie said school closures were never the plan, just an anticipated byproduct of reform.
“We weren’t looking to do a New Orleans-type situation where you charter-ize the entire district,” he said. “That was not what we were looking to do.“
But Benson and other Camden activists say that’s exactly what’s happening. Charter schools are moving into Camden with better buildings, the ability to more easily bond and accept donated money and less bureaucratic red tape to navigate drawing students away from the district schools.
The reason these schools have been able to flourish is because of Christie’s Urban Hope Act.
In 2012, Christie signed the act, which created a special category of schools known as renaissance schools. These were publicly funded, privately run charter schools that were funded better than traditional charters and given incentives to build new facilities. Camden, Trenton and Newark were given the option to adopt this new type of school, but only Camden embraced it.
Camden, a former manufacturing hub across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, had been on a steady decline. In 2006, school district officials were being investigated by the state for pervasive corruption. By 2010, when Christie took office, Camden — with its entrenched poverty and high violent crime rate — was widely considered one of the most dangerous cities in America.
Christie said he saw the Camden school district struggling with a “horrible facilities situation, a dysfunctional school board [and] a real lack of leadership.” And though he “was not a huge fan of state takeovers,” his administration took control of the schools in 2013.
At the time of the takeover, the district was spending more per student than most others in the state and yet had some of the lowest test scores and high dropout rates.
Unlike Newark, where an organized opposition effort by local leaders and parents fought his intervention, Christie, a Republican, got the support of Camden’s Democratic leadership and political figures in South Jersey.
The Urban Hope Act’s prime sponsor in the Legislature was then-Sen. Donald Norcross, a Democrat and brother of the powerful South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross. The first school approved and opened under the law was the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy — a state-of-the-art, $45 million, 110,000-square-foot building.
Benson, the union president, says the political cooperation was more of a stranglehold on Camden.
“Our district has been hijacked as part of the local Democratic power structure,” he said. “And our students and educators are collateral damage.”
Since the takeover, enrollment in district schools has been cut in half — from 12,600 students in 2012-13 to 6,900 in 2019-20. Today, more than 8,000 students in Camden attend the 15 charter or renaissance schools operating in the city.
Christie said he recognized that new charter buildings would likely mean students would leave the district’s traditional schools. With that in mind, he said, he committed to funding and completing a new traditional Camden High School — set to open this September at a cost of over $130 million.
“What we hoped would happen was renaissance schools would prove to be successful and those methods and approaches that were shown to be successful in renaissance schools would be applied to traditional public schools and you’d see improvement all across the district and there would be no need to close schools,” Christie said.
By some metrics, it worked.
Standardized test scores in the charter, renaissance and district schools have all improved since 2012, though scores among charter and renaissance students have increased at greater rates.
According to state data from the 2018-19 academic year, the graduation rate for district schools has reached 69 percent, up from 49 percent in 2012, and the dropout rate has fallen to 9 percent, down from 21 percent in 2012.
“I do think it’s better than it was when we found it,” Christie said, while acknowledging there’s still a long way to go.
But residents wonder what it may be costing the community in the long-run.
Rann Miller, a freelance education writer, said he was teaching in Camden amid the state takeover and experienced firsthand the tension it created.
“There was this feel of being colonized,” Miller said. He said residents, mostly Black and brown, lost their say in the way their city and school district were being run. The state said Camden’s schools were “failing” kids but, Miller said, “maybe it’s the whole system failing the kids.”
Miller and other community members have pushed back on Christie’s assertion that closing schools was never the intention.
“It’s hard to think the fix wasn’t in,” Miller said, adding that closing schools was “the easy answer.”
“Closing schools says to the state or whoever’s in charge that you don’t have to educate these kids,” Miller said. “I think that’s wrong, I think the state has a responsibility to educate kids in Camden whether they like it or not.”
Whereas Christie’s influence on Camden was overt, Murphy’s administration appears to prefer not to engage with the local politics. Murphy’s relationship with George Norcross has been strained ever since the governor incited a war with the Democratic boss over the state’s tax incentive programs. The two have since reached a detente.
Stephen Danley, a Camden resident and associate professor at Rutgers University-Camden, said what Camden needs is a consistent policy plan and a commitment from the state to carry that out — not experimentation.
“What you see in Camden is a pock-marked system of all the political fads of previous years,” he said. “There’s this understanding of Camden as the last seat of the roller coaster. The state politics turns sharp left or sharp right and Camden gets whipped around.”
Sean Brown, a former district school board member, sits on the district’s long-term planning committee, which is hoping to do just as Danley said: offer some stability and consistency regardless of who is in the governor’s chair.
“I can see why the state doesn’t want to do state control. They’re not good at it, it’s not what they are poised to do,” Brown said.
He said there should be more accountability measures put on the state and more technical and fiscal assistance given to districts under state control.
Murphy hasn’t attempted to enact new policies in Camden, leaving city residents, activists and Christie himself asking where the governor is in all of this.
Danley said former state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet stepped in and stopped the closure of a different Camden district school in 2018, but since he left the position in July, the administration has not said whether Allen-McMillan will do the same this time.
“Does policy only stand for Camden as long as one person is in charge?” Danley asked.
Christie questioned why Murphy hasn’t overhauled the Schools Development Authority or provided more money for school construction to allow the traditional schools to rebuild.
“To me I don’t understand how you can‘t be talking more about this,” he said. “This is the issue that will define the next generation of New Jerseyans.”