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Garcia: Full and Fair Funding

Jennifer Garcia's Op-Ed was originally published in the Asbury Park Press, Sunday, March 19 2017

The commissioner of the state Department of Education recently decided to allow the Red Bank Charter School to operate for another five years. While that was disappointing news for the Fair Schools Red Bank Organization, we immediately organized to testify at the hearings of the Senate and Assembly budget committees. A key part of our battle is fair funding, and we are used to setbacks.

We also are used to being criticized by members of the public, who claim we are somehow envious of the charter school and question our motives.

Why are we doing this? The process started several years ago as a group of parents began to recognize that programs were being cut from the Red Bank borough schools, programs that originally attracted us to the schools. One day it is the violin program, the next it is track and field, then afterschool robotics. Then it is our much-needed summer program, and the list goes on. What has caused all of these programs to go away? It was the state funding model

The state hasn’t fully funded the Red Bank borough public schools since 2009. Sadly, after a few years of discussions and fighting for fair funding alongside our representatives, we realized that the Red Bank Charter School was receiving full and fair funding. According to the most recent Taxpayer’s Guide to Education Spending, which is published by the state Department of Education, Red Bank public schools receive $16,607 per student, while the Red Bank Charter School receives $18,726 per student.

We also realized that the charter school takes 50 percent of our state aid each year to serve its 200 students, as well as $1 million more to ensure that it receives full funding under state law. We also recognized the impact this has on our local taxes because of the $2 million in annual duplicative costs that it takes to operate both school systems.

Our campaign for fair funding led us to discover that Red Bank is home to the most segregated school district in New Jersey, with a charter school that has far more white students and far fewer poor students and English-language learners than the borough public schools. We were horrified.

At that moment, we thought this could be the key to what would bring us together. By pointing out the segregation, maybe we could unify the schools. That way we could do more for the greater good of the community. All students who attend publicly funded schools would receive the same amount.

That moment was short-lived. The Red Bank Charter School applied for an expansion in 2016 shortly after we uncovered the enrollment and funding inequities. But after strong advocacy from Fair Schools Red Bank against the expansion, the state rejected the application.

After we successfully blocked the expansion, we decided it was time to oppose the charter renewal. Civil rights groups also were concerned. In addition, we found that the charter school had violated a 2007 consent order requiring the district to address segregation in the borough public schools. But the numbers have stayed the same or gotten worse since then.

The U.S. departments of Education and Justice opened an investigation in 2017 in response to our civil rights complaint, which pointed out the segregation, both financial and demographic, and that the conditions put in place by the consent order were never followed. Despite all of this, state Department of Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington granted the charter renewal without any sanctions or conditions. We can’t help but feel that Harrington slammed the door on Red Bank families.

The federal Department of Education is still investigating segregation in the Red Bank schools, and the ACLU has notified the state Department of Education that it would appeal its decision to renew the charter. Some charter families must feel the humiliation of this scrutiny on their children’s school. They must recognize that the conditions of the consent order were blown off by their administration. Where is the accountability, not only to Red Bank as a community, but to their own families?

Fair Schools Red Bank encourages Red Bank families and taxpayers to make sure all Red Bank schools have full and fair funding.

Jennifer Garcia is a small business owner and parent of three public school students in Red Bank.

Erica Borkowski