Wednesday, September 26, 2012

NJ parents occupy the NJ Dept of Education to fight the scourge of charter schools in their community!

Parents protesting at the NJ Department of Education credit: NJ Star Ledger
A few days ago we featured the real-life "Won't Back Down" story of a Brooklyn parent and teacher who together battled to prevent a billionaire-backed charter school from invading their successful public school building.  Today we feature the story of Darcie Cimarusti, who with other NJ parents, successfully fought to prevent a charter school from siphoning off funds from their public schools. You should also follow Darcie's terrific blog, Mother Crusader and she can be reached at  Please send us your own real-life "Won't Back Down" stories at

My name is Darcie Cimarusti, and I am a parent of twin six year olds who attend the Highland Park Public schools.  When my daughters were in Pre-K I became aware of a charter school that intended to open in our district.
 Our district was able to provide quality public schools, including free half day Pre-K, despite Governor Christie’s huge budget cuts.  I soon became concerned about how our district would absorb the additional financial burden of a charter school that would draw funds away from our public schools.
In March of 2011 the founders of the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School applied for a charter from the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) for the third time.  While there had been community opposition to the first two applications, the issue really heated up for the third one.
Darcie Cimarusti
One of the many reasons for the increased resistance was that after the founders were denied twice the opportunity to open in the diverse, successful districts of Highland Park and Edison, they chose to add the city of New Brunswick to their third application.
This angered all three communities, as it seemed to be an opportunistic attempt to exploit the needs of the New Brunswick community, which has many poor and minority students, to gain approval from the state.  Both Governor Christie and Commissioner Cerf had made it clear that their focus was on opening charters is struggling districts.  Parents in Edison and Highland Park were certain that the founders intended to draw the majority of their students from the Jewish populations in their own  districts, but added New Brunswick to increase the odds that they would receive approval from the state.  
When I became involved in the opposition to the charter, along with numerous other community members, we scoured the application to understand who wanted to open this charter, and what they intended to do with the almost $1.3 million they would divert from the budgets of the three districts.  I also researched New Jersey’s charter law to better understand what was and what wasn’t allowed in our state.
I learned that when New Jersey’s charter school law was enacted in 1995 it was intended to empower parents and teachers to identify unmet student needs in a particular school or district, and to create a place where those needs could be met. 
The law and existing regulations defined an "eligible applicant" as teaching staff or parents of children attending the schools of the “district board of education”, in other words, the PUBLIC SCHOOLS!
When we looked into the background of Tikun Olam’s founders, we discovered none of them had children enrolled in the public schools and none were teachers.  Rather, most had chosen to send their children to private, religious schools.. 
The NJDOE’s Office of Charter Schools had completely overlooked the fact that, by law, the founders of this charter WERE NOT eligible applicants, and allowed them to apply time and time again.  During the third application we submitted copious materials to the NJDOE alerting them to this oversight.  The application was denied for the third time in September of 2011, but when we received a report that stated the reasons for the denial, nowhere was it mentioned that the applicants were ineligible to apply for a charter.
And then in October of 2011, just before the next application cycle began, it was announced that the founders had received a $600,000 federal grant from the US Department of Education, which seemed to almost guarantee their eventual approval from the state.  The founders reapplied for a fourth time, but removed Highland Park from the application, no doubt thinking our opposition would die down.
It didn’t.  Instead, we mounted an unprecedented opposition campaign.
Parent activists, together with the Highland Park Board of Education and the Highland Park Borough Council held a Town Hall meeting in Highland Park to discuss the application, but representatives from the NJDOE, including then Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf, refused to attend.  So we organized an “Occupy the DOE” event and protested outside the NJDOE building (and even briefly occupied the lobby before the police were summoned.)  (see video below).  We invited parents from districts across the state to join us, and they came from as far north as Teaneck and as far south as Cherry Hill.  We asked to speak with anyone from the Office of Charter Schools, and also requested to schedule a meeting, but no one would come out and talk to us and no meetings were scheduled.
Shortly after our occupation, New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip began working on a column that questioned why a $600,000 federal grant was awarded to Tikun Olam when the proposed charter school had been denied three times and their application was filled with misrepresentations.  Only then did the NJDOE agree to meet with us to hear what we had to say.
In his column, Mr. Winerip noted the widespread backlash against charters in New Jersey, but concluded “it is an uphill battle against an education establishment that includes Democrats (President Obama) and Republicans (Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey) with strong financial backing (the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations).”
Despite the odds, parents in Highland Park, Edison and New Brunswick won our uphill battle.  The application was denied for the fourth time, and though the lead founder said that they would reapply for a fifth time, so far they have not.  Moreover, months after the denial, with the help of Congressman Frank Pallone, the federal grant to the charter was also rescinded.
The parents, teachers, and residents of these three communities were able to come together to successfully defend our public schools, and we refused to back down.  We were successful in stopping the corporate reformers and privatizers at the New Jersey and United States Departments of Education from forcing an unwanted, unneeded charter school down our throats. 

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