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Keith E. Benson: What Reformers Are Really Doing in Camden and Other Urban Districts

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Keith E. Benson is president of the Camden (New Jersey) Education Association. In his view, the underlying goal of the charter industry is gentrification, and he worries about its long-term implications for his community and its families.

He writes:

Admittedly [my] fight for Camden’s public schools is personal. Both my grandmothers were teachers, numerous aunts, and two of my uncles were employees of the District where I, myself, taught before becoming president of the city’s teacher union in 2017. My daughter goes to school here and has since she was three. My wife went to school here until her freshman year of high school, and she grew up here. We all live here now. Because of such deep and intimate connections I have with this public school district and city, anything that threatens the sustainability is triggering.

The planned dismantling of our public-school system coupled with a massive redevelopment effort dubbed “Camden Rising”, reduces merely existing here in the future to a tenuous proposition for many working class and poor residents. For generations of Camden’s current residents, and new arrivals here from Latin America, this city is one of the last affordable places in New Jersey folks can reside. Redevelopment after all, is not singularly about buildings and urban spaces, but also demographics. Municipal redevelopment always has a human cost; and those often left footing the bill through rising rents and displacement are typically those who can least afford it.

The deliberate dismantling of urban school districts as witnessed in Chicago, Philadelphia , Atlanta, Newark, NYC and other urban localities is central to remaking cities and courting new potential residents. As covered in Education Reform and Gentrification in the Age of #CamdenRising, what is taking place in Camden now, is no different than what we’ve seen unfold across America. If places that were once affordable for the impoverished and working class, cease to be affordable, what happens to them? Where do they go? How do they fare? As such I have developed a disdain for anything that threatens the tenuous sense of tranquility and order those at the margins may have – with residential housing, and the right to exist in their domicile being central to that sense of order. As such, I recognize the dismantling of urban school systems as more than simply a takeover of buildings and upending of staff, but as central to neoliberal cities’ efforts to separate from vulnerable populations they deem undesirable.

Which brings me to Reason Number 1 as to the Problems I have with the Education Reform Community: Their Committed Ignorance that Urban Education Reform aka “School Choice”, through Dismantling Public Schools is More Subversive than Simply Improving Educational Trajectories for Students of Color.

To be clear, I am making a distinction between parents who send their children to charter schools, and the platformed (Black) Education Reform Proponents. I recognize that parents in many cases are trying to do what they believe is best aligned with their living situation, and for their child. This critique is NOT for them. (In fact, to be clear, it is my position that it is a parent’s responsibility to do what they deem best for their child, including deciding what school is a good fit for them.)

The Education Reform establishment however, refuses speak to, and remains unconcerned about, the connection between low income housing, rental rates and the dismantling of urban public schools low income housing, rental rates and the dismantling of urban public schools. Worse yet, while occupying ample space on the internet, social media, and in top newspaper’s Op/Ed columns, they also never make such connections known to the largely ignorant (and trusting) public while advocating for the destruction of urban schools; never mention the connection between real estate prices and the establishing of charter schools; and never mention how the existence of urban schools labeled “failing” frustrates development in keeping rent and taxes low, while keeping potential gentrifiers out. In Reformers’ advocacy, urban schools have no connection to neighborhood affordability worth mentioning, future availability of affordable housing for students and their parents. As such, they have actively chosen to keep their focus on the “quality schools” talking point. They are willfully deceptive, or negligently myopic in focusing solely on schools as if students’ output is not impacted by the housing uncertainty which initiates greater student mobility, family transience, and increasing student homelessness. increasing student homelessness.

It is my contention that if Education Reformers really cared about school quality, they’d recognize that schools are indicators of larger urban policy priorities. Schools are building charged with educating observant children who arrive with experiences and awareness that may not prioritize learning content as their first concern. Afterall, what is more fundamental to anyone’s sense of security and normalcy than their right to a secure space to sleep and call “home”? My suspicion is not that allies of the reform movement aren’t aware of this, it’s that they don’t care because all along, it was never really about the kids and their learning in the first place.

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