Education Law Center Fights Newark’s Charter Expansion and Privileges Bureaucracy over Families

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Last week Education Law Center (ELC) filed an appeal of N.J. Education Commissioner David Hespe’s approval of seven charter schools expansions in Newark. ELC claims that these expansions, driven by parent demand, will “exacerbate the budget crisis in Newark” and “trigger even deeper cuts to teachers, support staff, and programs” within the traditional district.

This is true. Large troubled districts throughout the country — Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit — confront the cumbersome task of downsizing facilities, budgets, and staff as student enrollment shifts from traditional public schools to public charter schools. It’s just math, right? As students in traditional schools leave, per-pupil aid goes down or, like N.J., is channeled through the district to receiving schools. According to the D.O.E. database, this year Newark Public Schools received $967,685,756 in total revenues;  $225,517,974, or about one quarter of total revenues, went to charter school tuition.

Downsizing is challenging. School board members are often advised  that changing a district’s strategic plan — whether motivated by academic, fiscal, professional development, or infrastructural needs — is like navigating a battleship. Change is slow

But charter popularity is growing fast. In 2014 2.6 million students attended charter schools throughout the country.. In Newark currently 30% of children attend these alternative public schools and ELC projects that “by 2020-21, nearly half of all Newark’s school children will be enrolled in the charter sector.” Already half of Newark’s  African-American students attend charters. The recent school board election there elicited a sharp increase at the polls by newly-empowered pro-choice parents, who elected two new members who openly advocate for charter schools. This is a trend, not an anomaly, and bodes a more charter-friendly board as the district achieves local control.

But ELC says that  this parent-driven pace must be arrested in order to preserve the battleship. The needs of the bureaucracy trumps the urgency of student choice.

Here’s ELC’s Executive Director David Sciarra:

This appeal is not about the merits of charter schools or district schools, but rather about the State’s overarching obligation to ensure a thorough and efficient education for all public school students in Newark. This appeal raises the abject failure of the Commissioner to perform his mandated constitutional duty to make certain that before charter schools can expand, all Newark children have the resources they need to succeed in school, whether they attend a district or charter school. The Commissioner simply ignored the overwhelming evidence in the record that a further increase in charter enrollment at this time will harm children and schools throughout the city.

That’s the wrong approach. Mr. Sciarra proposes that the Commissioner, who is the only charter authorizer in the state, override the will of Newark parents (currently 6,500 children in the city are on charter school waiting lists) who want their kids enrolled in high-performing schools like KIPP’s TEAM and Uncommon’s North Star. The appeal privileges the bureaucracy over the educational needs of families and, ironically, punishes the precise cohort of students — low-income urban children of color — whom the lobbying organization pretends to protect.

The right approach requires creative strategic planning in order to reduce district infrastructure, staffing, and fiscal needs to correlate with shrinking enrollment, all while protecting fair funding for non-charter children. This is new territory. But surely we can do so without dismissing the wishes of families whom districts exist to serve.

In an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, Marguerite Roza explains that, contrary to the mythology espoused by the members of the traditional educational hegemony like ELC, charter schools don’t “drain” or “siphon” money from local districts. Simply, per pupil funding shifts from one public entity to another. Mr. Sciarra says the shift is too abrupt. But, says Roza,

Charter schools aren’t to blame; typical district budgeting practices are. Districts often make bulky, inflexible and sometimes irreversible spending commitments that outlive their administrations or don’t match up with revenues. They allocate staff in increments tied to schools or departments. And they inherit promises for unpaid obligations like retiree healthcare that are only affordable if enrollments and state revenues never decline. These legacy costs linger as a fiscal burden to future district budgets.

For example, Roza points out that LA Public Schools has seen a similarly swift expansion of charter schools and over the last six years has lost nearly 100,000 students. Over those last six years, however, the district’s number of staff members increased.

Roza recommends proactive approaches to declining enrollment by allocating costs in per-pupil terms. As an example, she suggests that each central office department — human resources, facilities, curricula, litigation, etc. — get “a fixed-dollar increment,” thus rendering budgeting “inherently responsive to enrollment changes.” Roza continues,

Districts must also reconsider long-term spending commitments, such as retiree healthcare benefits, that are unsustainable when the financial landscape changes.  Full financial transparency of legacy costs per pupil can help create a public appetite for tweaking these arrangements when they are no longer financially viable. State policymakers can also help by making new funds contingent on phasing out these kinds of commitments. After all, it is often the states that get tapped for a bailout when the district financials fall apart.

There are other strategies, already underway in Newark. Public charters are increasing enrollments of special education students with mild and moderate disabilities, as well as English Language Learners. KIPP and Uncommon in particular are stepping up efforts. For students with more severe disabilities like autism, Comm. Hespe can authorize schools modeled after the effective New York City Autism Charter School. (N.J. already has a robust sector of private special education schools that serve special needs students; districts pay tuition and transportation, just like charters, and no one, including ELC, ever complains. Here’s a complete list at ASAH’s website.)

Districts can also step up efforts to increase enrollments at magnet schools (Newark’s are very popular among families) and emulate some of the instructional strategies that have proved successful at charters.  Another article on L.A.’s downsizing interviews parent Lisette Duarte, a mother of a 16-year-old son enrolled in a charter school and an 11-year-old daughter enrolled in a district school, She says that she is eager for her daughter, like her son, to be able to attend a charter school “with many benefits she doesn’t see at their neighborhood school: a small learning environment, extra-curricular activities and close attention from teachers. Her daughter, by contrast, is struggling in a low-performing school with a large English learner population, she said.”

“It makes me really sad when I hear about parents who are still struggling,” she said. “We were that family struggling” in Los Angeles public schools.

And that’s why this is about, right? Large districts with enrollment shifts must find a  a way — right now — to fairly serve the children of Lisette Duarte. If Mr. Sciarra had his druthers, Newark would make tiny course corrections over many years in order to preserve the battleship. That’s too late for Ms. Duarte’s daughter and too late for Newark parents. It’s time to chart a new course in a more adaptable vehicle.

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