Today at The74, Richard Whitmire addresses the $100 million Newark Facebook grant and whether the money should have all been spent expanding charter schools. While much of the recounting of this education reform story has been “failure narratives” –Dale Russakoff’s The Prize and David Kirp’s recent New York Times editorial are on the list – Whitmire says this story is wrong:
Not only did the reforms of traditional Newark Public Schools produce some real benefits, but the relatively small portion of the gift invested in Newark charter schools paid off big. Real big.
The gains are so striking, in fact, that they raise a key question: Why didn’t the Newark reforms emphasize charters from the beginning? If you look across the Hudson River where former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein produced striking gains by pulling in the region’s top charters with offers of $1 a year rentals to use existing buildings, it’s reasonable to ask (with the admitted benefit of hindsight): Why didn’t Newark do the same?
The answer is more complicated that “either-or” but this quibble doesn’t detract from Whitmire’s own narrative, which is mostly focused on the “stunning” student growth at Alexander St. School.
Back a couple of years, before Uncommon Schools charter network took over, according to N.J. D.O.E. archives, 62% of students were failing basic skills tests in language arts proficiency and 59% were failing basic skills tests in math. Third-graders couldn’t read or count. Whitmire says that former Superintendent Cami Anderson told him that the school was so depressing that she’d cry after each visit.
Last Spring the same kids, now officially at North Star Academy Alexander St. School, took the PARCC, aligned with the more challenging critical thinking skills embedded in the Common Core State Standards. But now they scored “close to the state average for affluent districts in English” and exceeded them in math. Read the article for the data, as well as great descriptions of teacher and administrative dedication, resourcefulness, and parent outreach.
Whitmire’s argument is logical: the Facebook money should have all gone to charter expansion, instead of spending so much on other strategies. (Then-Mayor Cory Booker raised another matching $100 million and fifty million dollars, as part of the deal, went to retro pay after the Newark Teacher Union contract was resolved.) Why, Whitmire asks, are we fooling around with long-dysfunctional district schools when charters do such a better job? And you can’t use the “creaming” or “not backfilling” excuses: these are indeed “no excuses” charter schools. Newark’s universal enrollment plan requires that “when Uncommon has a vacant seat, they notify One Newark which sends them a student off a wait list. No choosing involved.”
That simple reality makes Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s recent plea to the state — please refuse KIPP’s petition for five more charters; their expansion plans would drain my schools — sound morally suspect. (He’s also fighting Uncommon’s already approved expansion plan.) How can you justify maintaining a system where fourth graders can’t count to 100? Why not view top charters as just another flavor of top schools within Newark Public Schools?
I get that. But I also get the intense political and fiscal pressure on Newark Public Schools to carefully control charter school growth. Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf explained to Whitmire,
“We spend $231 million per year of public money on charters. That comes directly out of NPS’s $850 million budget. We’ll spend $50 million more on charters next year …The real limit on charters growth is supply and capacity.”
The question isn’t whether Newark’s charter school sector will expand. It will. Next year 40% of Newark’s public school students will attend charter schools. Parent demand is high and, increasingly, parents are empowered. A new group called Hands Off Our Future Collective is actively registering Newark voters to hold anti-charter politicians accountable to city residents, regardless of teacher union largesse and pressure.
This is the most recent posting on the group’s Facebook page: that calls out local Statehouse legislators Mila Jasey and Patrick Diegnan, who have sponsored the charter moratorium bill:
Assemblywoman Jasey and Assemblyman Diegnan want to pass a bill that will stop your child’s school from growing and put thousands of our kids out on the curb.
Teachers, Charter parents, alumni and community members will unite to learn more about how we can join forces to tell legislation to get their hands off our kids future! #handsoffourfuture
Child care will be provided and dinner will be served.
So how does N.J.’s largest school district manage this shift to a diverse public school landscape that comprises traditionals and charters, perhaps in equal number? That’s the story that hasn’t been written yet.