A representative for the Hoboken Dual-Language Charter School (HoLa) issued a response on Thursday night to comments made by Board of Education President Leon Gold on Thursday in a Salon.com article.
On Thursday, Gold had complained that the charter schools in Hoboken are pulling resources and students away from the other public schools. He made a number of strong assertions, including saying the district has experienced “white flight” into charter schools from the regular public schools.
Barbara Martinez, the president of the Board of Trustees for HoLa who also works for Uncommon Schools, a pro-charter school non-profit organization based in New York City, said Thursday evening that Gold’s assessment was neither factual nor in accordance with HoLa’s mission.
Reached on Friday, Gold said his battle was neither with HoLa or Martinez, but with the Christie administration and the issue of charter schools nationwide.
“I’m passionate about this because it’s a civil rights issue, a government issue, and a moral issue,” he said, noting that he had no intention for his words to be contrived as race-based.
He did, however, say he stands by his words in the Salon piece.
The administration of Gov. Chris Christie very recently approved an expansion of HoLa to seventh and eighth grades.
Charter schools are considered public schools and receive most (although not all) of their funding through the school district. They are usually founded by local parents and educators, and must be approved by the state. Students are chosen by a lottery.
In the Salon.com piece, Gold argued that while charter schools originally were founded in Hoboken to combat a failing school system, his tenure on the board is focused on reforming those public schools and must now compete with the charters for limited state funding.
“We are creating separate but equal school systems,” Gold said. “The Hoboken school system… was a nepotism mill. And in order to fight that, a charter school was created. The Elysian and Hoboken charter schools were created for exactly the right reason. [But] now that reform has taken over the public school systems … HoLa has now become an alternative, in my opinion, white flight school...”
“HoLa has now become an alternative, in my opinion, white flight school...” – Hoboken Board of Education President Leon Gold
At the time, Mayor Dawn Zimmer indicated that she wasn’t entirely pleased with Toback’s letter to the state and hoped he would give it another look. Both of Zimmer’s children attend one of the charter schools in town.
Separate but equal?
In Salon, Gold made claims that the HoLa community represents “the richest and brightest of Hoboken” and that’s why Zimmer and the state had to listen to them. But on Friday, Martinez shot back, arguing that the school’s demographics accurately reflect Hoboken’s.
“HoLa doesn't segregate at all. Even though we are subject to a random lottery, we still match the Hoboken city demographics in poverty rate and African-American percentage,” she said. “We have double the percentage of Hispanics as the city. And we have literally left no stone unturned in trying to let every low income family know that charter schools – not just HoLa – are an option.”
Martinez alleged that she had asked Toback to send a flyer to Hoboken’s pre-K families, many of whom qualify as low-income, to inform them of the lotteries for HoLa and the city’s other charter schools, Hoboken Charter and Elysian Charter. But she suggested that Toback never sent out the letter.
Reached on Friday, Toback denied Martinez’s claim, saying the letter was sent to all early childhood families by the district’s Community & Parent Involvement Specialist.
Martinez said, “Since the Hoboken school district has access to all of the low-income families, why aren't they helping us get the word out about the charter lotteries?” she said. “You can check our board minutes – the board considered doing a low-income preference in our lottery to increase our numbers. We determined that we were likely to get sued for discrimination if we did it.”
Martinez also noted that serving at-risk students is a key component of the HoLa mission statement, particularly, because of evidence suggesting the strong cognitive and academic benefits of early dual-language education.
Gold, an associate professor at Columbia University who has no children, also made claims that HoLa and other charters – which receive state funding from the same pot as the city’s public schools – are “bankrupting” the public schools.
“I would have no qualms at all if the state said, ‘We are going to fund these charter schools.’ I would feel bad that they’re lacking diversity. I would feel bad that they’re not becoming part of the Hoboken culture. But if the state would fund [them], that’s great,” Gold told Salon. “But don’t take from poor students and give to the more affluent students…”
He also took issue with the hardship public school districts face given the state’s minimum 2 percent tax levy does not allow for as much increased funding as may be necessary. Continued funding for the charters, he said, could force the school board to lay off teachers or raise taxes.
“From 245 to 405 [HoLa students] will eventually be $1,800,000 a year we have to come up with,” he said. “And remember, a 1 percent tax increase for us is only $300,000. How do you keep under a 2 percent cap with that?”
He noted on Friday that his math in the Salon article was somewhat off – a 1 percent tax increase for the school district would be $350,000. But in any case, Martinez said Gold’s assessments were wildly out of touch.
“The allegation that HoLa will cause Hoboken school district's layoffs is harmful and irresponsible,” she said. “It's hard to imagine that HoLa's additional cost to educate children for one year –$475,000 – will hurt Hoboken's $64 million budget so much that they will have to lay off staff. The most important thing for people to understand here is that HoLa spends $11,000 per pupil and the district spends north of $24,000 per pupil.”
Gold was first elected four years ago as part of the "Kids First" majority backed by Zimmer. But on Wednesday, he also took aim at the mayor, who endorsed him in last November’s school board election. When news broke that Toback would advocate against HoLa’s expansion, Zimmer was at first hesitant to take sides, saying that cooperation between the board and the charters was important for Hoboken’s future. But Gold said she wrote a letter in support of HoLa, tipping the scales in the charter’s favor.
He told Salon that Zimmer is playing “a very poor, bad role” in the issue.
“I just got reelected to the school board, and we were running together. HoLa wanted an expansion, and HoLa wanted our City Council people to write letters, and the mayor. We begged Dawn, 'Don’t write a letter.' We have tried to explain to her what the financial impact would be,” he said. “But the HoLa parents are so organized – and they represent, again, the richest and the brightest of Hoboken – that they talked her into writing a letter in support of HoLa.”
Zimmer spokesman Juan Melli declined to comment on Gold’s statements on Thursday.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org