A spokeswoman for the state Education Department declined to comment. The district’s interim superintendent, Reuben Mills, and the president of the Camden Board of Education, Kathryn Blackshear, did not return telephone calls.
A past effort shows the parents may have a tough time convincing the courts if Cerf’s response is deemed inadequate.
In 2009, the state appellate court rejected a request from parents and other school choice advocates in the state to force districts where test scores were poor to pay to send their children to better schools, either public or private.
The court noted that legislative changes to the school financing formula in 2008 had implemented steps that needed time to take effect. But the court left open the possibility of a future challenge if those measures failed.
David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, said in light of the 2009 ruling, rather than abandoning the Camden district, parents should galvanize support for state-recommended changes and force teachers, staff, administrators and state officials to follow through.
“There’s some very concrete commitments to bring real help and assistance and support to the district, to the principals in the schools, to the teachers in those schools,” Sciarra said. “So it’s imperative the community and parents all get engaged around that.”
But Bombelyn said children and parents in Camden had waited long enough for reform, and the appellate ruling essentially “makes the achievement of a fundamental right a crapshoot.”
“We might as well take these kids’ constitutional right down to the craps table at the Borgata and roll it on the dice,” she said.
School reform in New Jersey — in a battle still being fought — has its roots in Camden. In 1985, the state Supreme Court ruled on a lawsuit filed by Raymond Abbott, a student in the district, against the commissioner of education.
The ruling and subsequent decisions made districts such as Camden the best-financed in the state, though by many measures the districts still lag.
In an evaluation of Camden public schools issued in August, Cerf said the city needed “fundamental and transformational reform” and that problems were “readily apparent and evidenced in the extraordinarily low measures of student outcomes,” from test scores to graduation rates.
CAMDEN — The mothers of three Camden students yesterday asked the state education commissioner to declare the city’s public schools inadequate and unconstitutional because of poor performance.
They demanded that their children, and any of the system’s 15,000 students, be allowed to transfer to better schools.
If not satisfied with Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf’s response, they said they’re prepared to go to court.
In a class-action complaint against the Camden Board of Education, the parents — Sandra Vargas, Maria Roldan and Gricelda Ruiz — claimed their sons were being deprived of their rights to a “thorough and efficient” education.
“My son has only one educational lifetime and it is now,” said Vargas, whose 12-year-old son, Keanu, is in the seventh grade at Pyne Point Family School. “How long must he wait to have access to a school that supports?”
Roldan, whose 9-year-old son Emmanuel is a fourth-grader at the Dudley Elementary School, called the situation “a parent’s worst nightmare.”
The request was the latest attempt to address, or in this case bypass, the chronically underachieving schools in Camden. If successful, however, the challenge could serve as a model for other struggling schools across the state.
“We have kids whose constitutional right is a failed education experiment,” said Patricia Bombelyn, an attorney for the parents. “They’re guinea pigs.”
According to the report, the graduation rate was slightly more than 56 percent in 2011, and only 38 percent of graduates were proficient in state testing.
The city includes 23 of the state’s lowest 75 performing schools.
The report also said fewer than 1 percent of students who took the SATs in Camden scored high enough to be considered ready for college.
“What is needed are not incremental steps but a radical new approach to leadership, staffing and district management,” Cerf wrote.