NJ Parents Petition State for Better Education for Children

October 16, 2012

TRENTON - The parents of three Camden public school students filed a petition Monday asking the state Department of Education to immediately transfer their children to higher-performing schools at state expense, arguing that Camden had failed to meet New Jersey's constitutional requirement of providing a "thorough and efficient" education.

The petition was filed in the hope of eventually getting educational "relief" for most of Camden's 15,000 students, who are attempting to learn in some of the worst schools in the state, Patricia Bombelyn, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Monday.

The parents, their attorneys, and advocates for charter schools and voucher programs have asked the state to use the roughly $22,000 per pupil it spends in Camden to fund the children's education at better-performing schools, whether private schools in the district or public schools elsewhere.

Acknowledging that it would be a "difficult task" to find new seats for all 15,000 students, Bombelyn said one solution would be to increase the number of alternative public schools in Camden.

Among the groups backing the petition are the Black Ministers' Council of New Jersey, the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, and the pro-charter Excellent Education for Everyone (E3). All have lobbied state legislators for passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

That act would give tax breaks to companies that provide scholarships for students in failing districts to attend school elsewhere. It was passed over in favor of the Urban Hope Act, which could put nearly 40 percent of Camden's public school children into privately run Renaissance schools.

"This is a way to let them know that the Opportunity Scholarship Act should have been passed," said Angel Cordero, South Jersey coordinator for E3.

"We can't wait any longer while the school district and board get their act together," Cordero said. The board last month rejected the first four Renaissance school proposals in Camden.

The petitioners cited state-compiled data that found 23 of Camden's 26 schools to be among the 75 worst-performing public schools in New Jersey. Four of the 23 failed to make adequate progress for three consecutive years and had their principals replaced.

"We believe that the situation in Camden City schools is so dire that [the petitioners'] children are entitled to emergency relief at the beginning of the case and not to wait until the end," attorney Julio Gomez said at a news conference.

The students named in the filing "are suffering a harm that is immediate, severe, and cannot be repaired," he said. "It is our position that our children should not have to spend another day in this school district."

At least two of the boys are doing well in school, according to their mothers. However, the women fear that their sons' A grades in Camden are the equivalent of D grades in another district.

"Once he finishes high school, I want him to go to college," said Sandra Vargas, whose 12-year-old son, Keanu, is a seventh grader at Pyne Poynt Family School. "I don't want him to have to go to Camden County [College] because he has to take remedial classes."

Maria Roldan, a graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School who had to do remedial work at college, has the same concern for her 8-year-old son, Emmanuel, who is named in the petition.

When Emmanuel started school, she enrolled him at St. Cecilia's in Pennsauken. But when she became ill about three years ago and had to leave her job at the Camden Housing Authority, Roldan said, she could no longer afford the $120 weekly tuition.

Emmanuel has excelled and has perfect attendance at Dudley Elementary School, where he transferred in 2009, his mother said. But the fourth grader fears he will end up like his cousin, who when he was 17 at Woodrow Wilson read at a first-grade level.

"I just don't want him to fall behind," Maria Roldan said.

The third petitioner is the parent of Freddy Hernandez, a 5-year-old who attends first grade at Davis Elementary School.

Lawyers for the petitioners said they are seeking class-action status for all Camden district students to be given the choice to transfer to other schools as soon as possible, Gomez said.

All "are being deprived of a thorough and efficient education," the petition states.

State education spokeswoman Barbara Morgan said she could not comment on the petition because state officials had not reviewed it.

Acting Camden School Superintendent Reuben Mills said he also would not comment until reviewing the document.

The Education Law Center, which advocates for the state's struggling districts, was dismissive of the petition. The school vouchers the groups seek are ineffective and "only weaken public schools," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf "is launching a three-year effort to improve Camden district and charter schools," Sciarra said. "Camden's parents need to work together to hold the commissioner accountable for performance."