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Charter to Kids: Some are Better Than Others

My oldest son, Bryan, starts sixth grade at the Red Bank Middle School next month. He’s already picked out the shirt he’ll wear for college t-shirt day -- the red one that says: Harvard. It’s his dream.

Sometimes, those big dreams scare my husband and I. We don’t have a lot of money or formal education. But we came to America from Mexico 15 years ago for a better life for our kids. Still, Harvard? It scares us. We’re adults. We put limits on things.

But our son sees no limits. That’s because the Red Bank Public Schools made him believe in their motto: Dream Big.

But lately, I’ve begun to have my doubts. Not about my son’s school. But about my community and how a second public school system is dividing my town.

Like most of Red Bank’s Latino community, I only began to learn over the past year about the Red Bank Charter School and the segregation it causes. Before that, I was like many Latino parents who had only a vague notion of what it was. Some thought it was a private school. I had been told it wasn’t for “any kid.” I took that to mean it wasn’t for kids who were brown, or poor.

My kids’ school is only 7 percent white; the charter school is more than half white. Nearly 40 percent of the kids at the public schools are learning English as a second language. There are only a handful of those kids at the charter school. The biggest difference, nine in 10 of the kids at the public schools are eligible for free and reduced lunch, an indicator of poverty. Only 40 percent of the charter kids are.

But most people in my community only learned of those statistics last year, when the charter school asked the state Department of Education for permission to double its enrollment, to 400. It was the first time the charter school had ever attempted to let my community know it even existed.

But by then, everybody in Red Bank had begun to understand what that school really stood for.

One of the school trustees, Roger Foss, admitted that the school was created in 1997 to prevent “white flight.” And public school parents began to learn that the while the state of New Jersey had been shortchanging our kids of more than $6 million in aid over the past six years, the charter school had been getting more per-pupil than our kids. Under state law, that’s not supposed to happen.

We learned that the per-pupil cost of the public schools was $16,607 while the charter was $18,726. Our kids were getting less than the state average, while the charter kids were getting more than Rumson, a nearby town far richer than ours.

For years, the charter school said it was doing a better job educating kids than the public schools. Now we’ve learned that’s not true either. Last year, the public school eighth graders scored higher on both the verbal and math portions of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, despite the fact most of our kids had to learn English and the charter students did not.

The state denied the charter school’s expansion request. But the damage to my community had already been done.

Some people no longer talk to their neighbors. There is tension when parents from the schools come together at the kids’ sports games. But most hurtful of all are some of the comments I’ve heard from charter parents about “those people.” I don’t understand.

We public school parents are not second class people. We are just people. And like everyone else, we want what’s best for our kids. And we have woken up to the fact that a small school that only represents a portion of our town takes resources from everyone else.

On Sept. 15, the charter school will ask the state department of education to renew its charter for five more years. I urge Education Commissioner David Hespe to deny their request says no.

Red Bank is a small community. It should have one school system.

For years, the existence of the charter school has been sending the wrong message, that some kids are better than others. That’s wrong.

The message I would rather hear comes from the Red Bank Public Schools, where they tell kids to Dream Big, because with enough hard work, they have no limits.

This editorial by Maria De Los Angeles Santamaria Zacharias was published in the The Star Ledger on Oct. 21, 2016