Standing Up to SLAPPs: Rubin’s Continuing Charter School Challenges

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February 12, 2015; Teacherbiz

Last month, NPQ covered the unusual action initiated by the New Jersey Charter Schools Association alleging that Rutgers University professor Julia Sass Rubin had somehow violated state rules on ethics, conflicts of interest, and other regulations due to a report she co-authored questioning charter schools’ attention to and inclusion of low-income children, children with special needs, and ESL children. It looked to us like a classic “SLAPP suit,” aimed at making Rubin think twice before issuing other critical reports or speaking out about her conclusions. There are different routes NJCSA could have chosen for confronting Rubin, such as issuing a report challenging her statistics, but the association chose the path of SLAPP.

Do SLAPP suits work? That’s always the issue when an activist—or, as in Rubin’s case, an activist academic—finds themselves challenged by a well-heeled entity trying to deter further public statements. As a university professor, Rubin’s salary is probably decent, but it is doubtful that she has the personal resources to counter NJCSA, which received at least $1,773,860 in grants from the Walton Family Foundation between 2008 and 2012 and at least $1,298,600 from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation between 2003 and 2014, according to data accessed on the Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory Online.

Rubin, however, seems to still speak out on education reform issues. She and education professor Christopher Tienken recently co-authored a piece that pilloried New Jersey’s promulgation of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) standardized test that many school districts around the country are using but is resisted by teachers and parents in some communities. While some New Jersey districts do accommodate children whose parents do not want them to take the PARCC test, others are, according to Rubin and Tienken, taking “a much more punitive approach…even threaten[ing] students whose parents refuse the test with disciplinary actions.” As a consequence, parent activists are asking the state legislature to pass A4165/S2767, which would require “all districts and charter schools to provide consistent, humane treatment for children whose parents refuse standardized tests.” Governor Chris Christie’s Department of Education has responded that the U.S. Department of Education might cut Title I Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) funding to school districts where PARCC participation falls below 95 percent of students.

In this article, Tienken and Rubin argue that New Jersey’s DOE is wrong on the potential loss of funding if A4165/S2767 is enacted, pointing out that in the past, no school in the state has been hit with Title I financial penalties—ever—for missing the 95 percent participation rate on standardized tests, and several have fallen short of 95 percent over the years. They also point out that other states like California and Wisconsin have specific statutes allowing and protecting parents and children who opt to decline the PARCC, and they have not been hit with Title I penalties either.

Rubin and other critics of PARCC and similar standardized tests have been hit with attacks both tough and, at times, completely inexplicable. Laura Waters, a well known charter-school advocate and local school board member who writes the blog “NJ Left Behind,” charges that opponents of standardized testing are like opponents of vaccination. One suspects that Rubin is unlikely to collapse against such outrageous ad hominem attacks. Any university professor who has submitted an article for a peer-reviewed journal has encountered tough criticisms that make more sense than those from Waters.

The NJCSA SLAPP challenge may in the end be counterproductive. Sometimes, when someone tries to “slapp” you down, the result is a stiffened spine and a stronger will that leads you to stand back up, again and again.—Rick Cohen