Urban Hope Act, Renaissance Schools Examined in New Jersey

New Jersey’s Urban Hope Act is one step closer to becoming a new law.

In a vote earlier this week, the state Senate agreed 32-1 with Governor Chris Christie’s conditional veto, changing the law concerning renaissance schools in the state.

The bill would allow privately run renaissance schools more time to apply to open as well as the opportunity to use “substantially” reconstructed buildings in place of brand new ones.

For example, the newly opened North Camden Elementary School is renting space inside the Pyne Poynt Middle School this year.

“The building we share cannot be looked at as a separate space for either school,” said Pyne Poynt principal Tyrone Richards. “This is a shared building where we have common facilities. Both leadership teams are working together to ensure a successful educational program for all children.”

The schools would also not have to follow public school facility regulations, “other than those pertaining to the health and safety of the pupil.”  This addition is already in effect for charter schools in the state.

When the bill was originally introduced in June, it also offered a tax break to the schools.  Christie removed this portion so that teachers in Camden would not have any pension incentives to retire early.

Camden is the only city to have renaissance schools open, although the bill also pertains to Trenton and Newark as well.

During a recent visit to Camden, Christie said during a press conference that he expects the renaissance schools to eventually serve upwards of 9,000 children, adding that underperforming schools would need to improve or “lose out.”

“What we’re looking for is a public school system where we let parents decide,” he said. He later added, “Schools that are underperforming would lose out, and they should.”

There are currently around 11,500 public school students in the city.

In a letter to lawmakers, leaders of Save Our Schools NJ and the Education Law Center called for an end to the bill.

“This legislation… allows these organizations to open schools in temporary facilities, expanding the Urban Hope Act far beyond its intended scope of authorizing only ‘newly constructed’ renaissance school projects,” read the letter. “We strongly oppose this bill because it expedites and further facilitates an unprecedented and unaccountable transfer of public education in Camden from public to private control, under the Urban Hope Act.”

Save Our Schools NJ and a group of parents filed a lawsuit last month in an effort to stop the opening of the renaissance schools in Camden.  The group argued that the state Education Commissioner had not considered the “financial and segregative impact” of the schools.  The group also stated the schools did not supply “appropriate” public meetings to discuss the projects.

After the bill passed, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said it was of “vital importance to the students of Camden” and that it promised “new, innovative solutions critical to ensuring a better education for families long deprived of high quality schools.”