Parents poured into a Board of Education meeting Tuesday night after it was revealed that Superintendent of Schools Mark Toback intended to send a letter to the state education commissioner opposing the expansion of Hoboken’s Dual Language Charter School (HoLa) to eighth grade, and expressing concerns about charter schools in general. While Toback pulled the letter from the board’s agenda Tuesday night, members of HoLa’s Board of Trustees said last week they still expect Toback to send the letter.
On Thursday night, Mayor Dawn Zimmer, whose allies on the board normally side with Toback, released a statement saying the charter schools and other public schools should not be in competition and should work together. Zimmer has two children in another of the city’s three charter schools.
Well over 100 parents from HoLa, which is currently in the process of renewing its five-year charter, found out early in the week about Toback’s letter. The letter calls on Trenton to deny “any further expansion for HoLa and to not approve their renewal until such time that an extensive study can be completed.”
HoLa wants to expand from a K-5 school to a K-8 school over the next three years. Their current charter allows them to extend to sixth grade next year, but no further.
The city’s three charter schools (HoLa, Elysian Charter, and Hoboken Charter) are funded in part through the public school district’s $64 million budget. The district receives funding from property taxes and from the state and federal government.
“The whole city is freaking out.” – HoLa parent Sabrina Stoffel
Hoboken’s own public schools have long been criticized for below-average test scores (in the high school more than in the lower grades) and for high student spending, although their proponents say they are steadily making improvements.
The common trajectory for parents to take in the 1990s was to move out of Hoboken once their kids were old enough for middle school or before. In the mid-nineties, after the state of New Jersey passed a law allowing for charter schools, groups of parents and educators formed the Hoboken Charter and Elysian Charter. HoLa was a later addition, after the board shot down a proposal to implement a dual language curriculum in some public schools.
On Tuesday, Toback addressed the parents directly at the beginning of the meeting, saying that he had decided to not send the letter, in favor of holding further discussion with the HoLa community and perhaps arriving at some compromise.
However, Toback believes that the charter schools are hurting the public schools. He said the district has to send thousands of dollars per student to HoLa to educate them. The exact expenditures are a matter of debate, since the district gets some state funding per student, and if that student went to a private school or left town instead of attending HoLa, the district would not get that money.
The chair of the HoLa board of trustees, Barbara Martinez, said that parents were appreciative of the reprieve from the board but still have yet to let their guard down.
“We appreciate that he did that, because the letter was full of inaccuracies and misrepresentations, and we’re looking forward to a discussion,” she said. “But we expect that the superintendent is going to send the letter opposing our expansion and our parents will advocate for our school accordingly.”
Toback said on Thursday that he had scheduled a meeting with HoLa representatives and was looking forward to discussing his concerns with the expansion.
Toback concerned about ‘segregation’
The Board of Education resolution to approve Toback’s letter said HoLa’s expansion could be detrimental to the public schools’ middle school program and exacerbate “segregation” in the schools.
“The most important thing that the DOE can do now is hold the charter schools accountable for enrollment requirements,” he wrote. “It seems hard to believe that 40 years after the civil rights movement that I would be writing about the need to integrate public schools.”
Figures from 2010 compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) say that HoLa was 61 percent white, 26 percent Hispanic, and seven percent African American (fairly similar to Hoboken’s overall population). The city’s other charters have similar breakdowns, but the public schools are about 61 percent Hispanic, 20 percent white, and 16 percent African American.
Still, Martinez said the school follows strict guidelines for recruitment, and the application process involves a blind lottery that weighs every student equally regardless of race or socioeconomic status.
On Thursday, Toback said, “Parents were very passionate [on Tuesday] and I heard what they were saying. I’m hoping we can come to an agreement but ultimately there are concerns that I have about the effects of the charter schools on the district overall.”
In his letter, Toback wrote, “The community has the resources and the drive to create a model urban district that includes a mix of charter, private, and traditional public schools. Unfortunately, that will never happen if we continue down our current path.”
Angry parents threaten to move
Toback said that he removed the letter from Tuesday’s agenda after receiving phone calls and emails from concerned HoLa parents throughout the day. He said he is hoping confrontation can be avoided and replaced with productive conversation. Still, parents spoke for almost four hours at the meeting in support of HoLa.
Parents defended the uniqueness of the school’s Spanish immersion program and its success over the past five years (which has been debated by Toback), and many parents said that while the Board of Education might want to fight its expansion in order to drive up enrollment in the public schools, they would be leaving town if HoLa doesn’t go to eighth grade.
“For a lot of parents in this room, if we don’t get an expansion, we’re leaving,” said Jose Battle. “We’re committed to this school and we love this community, but if you plan on killing this program, tell us right away, because there is no path from my daughter’s sixth grade classroom to another school in this town.”
According to Great Schools, a website that tracks education statistics nationwide, HoLa enrolls 220 students.
Martinez said that the school did an internal survey last year which asked parents to rank their choices of where they would send their kids if HoLa didn’t expand, and the public schools overwhelmingly came in last.
Jen Sargent, one of the school’s founders, and Martinez both said that there needs to be reconciliation between the charter schools and the district.
“All of us believe in public education,” said Sargent.
Martinez added that HoLa and the district “have more in common than we have separating us.”
Martinez, a former education reporter for The Wall Street Journal who now works with Uncommon Schools, a charter school-building non-profit organization based in New York City, said that while blaming a public school’s problems on local charter schools is a popular trend, it rarely has any effect.
“No school has ever gotten better by attacking another school,” she said. “There’s simply no evidence of that ever happening.
Parent Sabrina Stoffel criticized what she called an attack on HoLa by the district and said that parents at other charters in town are worried about what HoLa’s battle could mean for them.
“The whole city is freaking out,” she said. “Because if the district can dismantle HoLa, it can do it to everyone.”
Funding and figures
Toback’s letter to the state Department of Education, which was posted on the district’s website Monday, attacked what he said were misconceptions about the success of HoLa, and other charters, in recent years. The public schools, he said, perform just as well (or just as poorly) as the charters.
He cited DOE peer rankings that showed HoLa to be outperformed by 69 percent of similar schools statewide, Hoboken Charter being outperformed by 97 percent, and Elysian outperformed by 35 percent. On the other hand, he said that public elementary schools like Wallace, Calabro, and Connors are outperformed by 84 percent, 53 percent and 48 percent, respectively.
“I am sometimes frustrated because I encounter residents who truly believe that the charter schools in Hoboken offer a better education than what we provide,” he wrote in the letter. “The differences between our public and charter schools are not as great as many believe.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, parents decried Toback’s methodology of using peer rankings to judge HoLa, saying the school’s program is unique enough that it should not be compared to others in its supposed class. The school is only one of a few Spanish immersion programs in the Northeast.
Toback also criticized the effect of charter expansion on the district’s funding practices. According to figures provided by the board’s business administrator, funding for the charter schools (which the district is required to provide) increased by about 20 percent each year from 2010 to 2013, which Toback said greatly debilitates the public schools’ chances to improve given that the budget can only be increased two percent a year by state decree.
“A two percent tax levy for the next year would be about $700,000, which is coincidentally almost exactly the increase we’re facing in funding for the charter schools,” he said. “So essentially we would cover that increase and it would leave nothing for the district.”
The state is required by law to provide funding for every student the district enrolls, including those who attend charter schools.
Politics in the balance
The “Kids First” school board majority, which is aligned with Zimmer, supports Toback. Some of those who spoke out against Toback’s letter are also Zimmer’s political opponents.
But many of the parents are not notably aligned with one side or the other.
On Tuesday, some HoLa parents questioned why campaign literature against some board members that was used in the recent election was included as an appendix to Toback’s letter.
Brian Murray, a candidate who lost the election to the Kids First members earlier this month, said that the concerns of HoLa parents were falling on deaf ears, as the Kids First had already decided to work against the school’s expansion in order to fill what he said were holes in the board’s $64 million budget.
Board member Carmelo Garcia, who will step down next month since he was just elected to the state Assembly, proposed a resolution near the meeting’s end that would bar the board from taking any stance on HoLa’s expansion. The board and superintendent are not required to weigh in. But he recused himself from the vote, since his daughter attends the school, and the resolution failed.
Councilman-at-Large David Mello, who teaches in a public school in the Bronx but has a daughter that attends Elysian Charter, attended the meeting and said he understood both sides of the issue.
“It’s understandable that parents of middle school-aged children want to keep their kids in the same school through eighth grade. I teach kids that are that age and I can’t imagine a rougher time to make that transition,” he said. “But at the same time we can’t crucify the school board when they increase a budget because they have to allocate more money for charter schools. We need to communicate properly.”
And Zimmer, who has two sons that attend Elysian, issued a statement Wednesday calling for more cooperation between the charters and the Board of Education.
“I firmly believe that a strong relationship between the charter schools and Hoboken High School and other grade levels could strengthen our entire public school system,” she said. “I do not believe that the charter schools and the district need to be in competition. Instead they should be working together to create synergies that benefit everyone.”
Zimmer also indicated that she planned to play an active role in the ongoing battle over HoLa’s expansion, noting that she was reviewing the school’s application to the DOE and had requested supplementary information from Toback.
“I understand his letter may be revised,” she said, “and I look forward both to receiving more information and the revised letter.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org