January 12, 2012; Source: Bloomberg News | New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has been feuding with teacher unions over his plans to improve public education in the Garden State, but with the Urban Hope Act he has secured the acquiescence of the teachers unions to part of his agenda—and the nonprofit sector.

The Urban Hope Act is one of four parts of Christie’s vision for improve public education (the others being a tax credit for entities making donations to fund school vouchers, expansion of charter schools, and new standards of teacher evaluation, tenure, and merit raises). The Urban Hope Act authorizes nonprofits to run “renaissance schools” in Newark, Trenton, and Camden, and it seems like Camden is the first target.

Unlike charter schools, whose students are selected by lottery, renaissance schools would be geographically based, like typical public schools. The nonprofit sponsors would be able to lease or acquire land to build new schools, and would receive 95 percent of the school district’s per-pupil funding for school operations.

Christie’s bill was sponsored by a Democratic Party leader from Camden, and got union support via provisions limiting the potential ownership of renaissance schools to nonprofits and assuring that teachers at these schools would benefit from all the rights and privileges accorded to regular public school teachers. Each of the three cities can develop as many as four renaissance schools under the law. Applications for renaissance schools would have to come jointly from nonprofit sponsors with demonstrated experience in operating schools in low-achievement districts and the local school districts before the state education commissioner could approve them. This is in contrast to much of the nation’s charter school process, in which parent groups and others with no demonstrated educational track record can propose to run charters and frequently get local school district approval.

It is easy to see why Camden officials would be enthusiastic supporters of the new legislation. The city’s school system is under strong state oversight due to years of poor performance, though the state hasn’t stepped in to run the schools as it has done previously in Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson. Only a little more than half of the city’s pupils graduate from high school, compared to 88 percent in Newark and over 90 percent statewide. All but four of Camden’s 27 schools are scheduled for “state turnaround” efforts. Of 70 so-called “priority schools” in the state—those scheduled for aggressive state interactions, including replacing school principals and teachers—23 are in Camden.

Can nonprofit management of geography-based public schools work? Camden, Newark, and Trenton are about to become the laboratories for finding out.—Rick Cohen