Cancel Culture in Newark: Superintendent Ignores Parent Voices and Demands Closure of Charters.

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Last week Newark Superintendent Roger Leon wrote a letter to New Jersey Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet demanding that Repollet, NJ’s sole charter authorizer, not renew four Newark charter schools and “deny any and all requests for new charter schools and charter renewals unless the applicant shows that it would serve a specific educational need.” 

Leon’s “request” is bewildering — not to mention arrogant — as he tries to cancel the voices of Newark parents who clamor for not fewer charter seats but more. This is a district leader who said three weeks ago, “I believe families should make decisions where their child should go and I don’t think anyone should change that.” According to Chalkbeat, which first reported this story, “While other local officials have sought to halt the expansion of Newark’s charter sector, whose student population quadrupled over the past decade, León is taking a more extreme position by demanding that existing charter schools be phased out.” 

Why the turn-around? It’s the money, not the kids, although Leon takes the familiar  position of claiming that Newark’s annual operating budget of almost $1 billion belongs to the district. He’s wrong: NJ’s school funding formula says the money allocated by the state belongs to the child, whether he or she attends district schools, public charter schools, vo-tech schools, or private special education schools. Leon is mourning money that never belonged to the district. But never mind —it’s a common tactic among those who resent diversion of funds from historically impervious institutions. (Note: the district technically gets to keep 10 cents on the dollar for charter school tuition, although districts on average keep about 25 cents.)

Let’s look at Leon’s letter to Repollet (embedded in the bottom of this article), which is actually four letters, one five-pager for each school with boiler-plate language and a few differentiating tweaks. Bizarrely, each letter has a footnote on the bottom of the first page citing a post I wrote about one of the sources Leon uses to back up his argument to Repollet. That post, “When Politics Undermines Scholarship: A New “Analysis” from Julia Sass Rubin and Mark Weber,” describes Rubin/Weber’s anti-charter funded “analysis” of Newark’s charter school sector as “ideological claptrap masquerading as scholarship” and explains, point by point, why the conclusions reached by the Rutgers gang among to a nothing-burger, full of qualifiers and data contortions that fail to make the case that charter schools discriminate against students with disabilities/English Language Learners and increase segregation. There’s no attempt to cloak the true agenda: Eliminate charter schools to maintain adult jobs and district cash, parent wishes be damned.

The other source Leon cites is a paper written by Rutgers professor Bruce Baker, who was caught on tape agreeing to write a anti-charter union-funded  report for $50K. The Rutgers gang (Rubin, Weber, Baker)  and now Leon have one goal: Effacing parent voices, particularly those with children stuck in mediocre traditional schools. (Drives me crazy that these people, yearning for the cancellation of parent autonomy, call themselves “progressive.”)

Harry Lee, President of the NJ Charter School Association, said, “The call to close all four schools is reckless and does not take into consideration what’s best for students and families. This was surprising and an aggressive move by the district.”

Let’s look at the four schools Leon wants shuttered:  M.E.T.S., People’s Prep, Roseville Community, and University Heights. M.E.T.S. and University Heights are already on probation because the accountability system for charters in NJ is far stricter than for district schools (and M.E.T.S has facilities issues). Roseville and People’s Prep are not on probation but Leon wants them closed anyway because he says they don’t take their fair share of students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Worth noting here: Parents of students with special needs often choose traditional schools or private schools for students with disabilities (that the district pays for without protest) because charters tend to be small and less able to pull together a group of students who require similar instructional methods. 

Yet in Newark the percentage of special needs students attending charters grows every year. Over 10 percent of M.E.T.S. students qualify for special education; at People’s Prep it’s 15%, just under the district average of 17%. Student proficiency and growth is not dissimilar from district schools and in some cases better. For example, at Roseville Community Charter School, a K-4 school with 324 children, 44.7% of students met or exceeded expectations in ELA and 41% met or exceeded expectations in math. These are far better outcomes than nearby district elementary schools. (Not sure why Leon dismisses the student success as “fail[ing] to show a positive impact,” except that it’s the boilerplate language repeated in each letter to Repollet.)

One other oddity: In the letter about People’s Prep, which shares space with the district’s Bard Early College High School, Leon tells Repollet (in what must have been news to People’s Prep) that NPS will end its lease and kick it out. Also, Leon adds an additional footnote:

We are aware and applaud parents who “vote with their feet.”  Bard Early College serves 600 students, 220 more than People’s Prep’s maximum. Bard outperforms People’s Prep on the indicator most relevant to People’s Prep’s mission, college enrollment. According to the School Performance Summary Report,  71.1% of the 2018 People’s Prep graduates enrolled in college, whereas 86.2% of Bard’s did so. Additionally, 100% of Bard’s students are enrolled in college courses while in high school. These factors show that there is nothing distinctive of People’s Prep, as discussed above.

Hold your horses, man! Talk about comparing apples to oranges! People’s Prep accepts all students through Newark’s universal enrollment system, which is controlled by the district. Bard is a magnet school with specific admissions requirements, including writing samples, interviews, a grade point average of 85% or above, no more than 10 unexcused absences, and and passing Bard-specific math and writing tests.

So, yeah, Bard has a higher college enrollment rate, higher test scores, and higher numbers of students taking college courses. That’s because it skims off top students, a charge often lobbed at charter schools (and not possible under Newark’s universal enrollment system).

Actually, I shouldn’t be surprised at Leon’s distortions of facts. He’s taking his cues from Baker, Rubin, and Weber. As mentors of deception, they should be proud. Here’s another way Leon distorts fact: When he uses “district averages” to try to prove that the charters don’t outperform district schools, he includes students who attend magnet schools. Bard is one. Another is Science Park High where “admission is highly competitive.” There, only 6% of students qualify for special education services and the number of ELL students is 0. Is Leon suggesting that the students kicked out of schools their parents chose for them could attend Science High? Maybe. On the other hand, they could end up at Malcolm Shabazz High School where 11% of students are proficient in ELA and so few are proficient in math that the DOE deletes the data.

A few final notes:

  • A recent analysis sponsored by the New Jersey Children’s Foundation (see here for a fuller look and a link to the report)  shows that, based on student performance on state standardized tests, Newark students in both the district and charter sectors improved their proficiency in math and reading for the fourth consecutive year, partly due to the increasing number of students attending charters.
  • All the schools Leon wants closed have wait lists: M.E.T.S. has 240, People’s Prep has 387, Roseville Community has 332, and University Heights has 995. That’s what parents want. Does Leon care?
  • Lastly, the DOE halted all charter approvals 15 months ago under the pretense that the Department was embarking on a “Charter School Law Review.” Thousands of parents from Newark, Camden, Paterson,, Plainfield, Trenton, and other long-struggling districts sent postcards, attended forums, and marched in rallies in efforts to convince Repollet (and Gov. Murphy, who only echoes NJEA talking points) that they want more charter schools. The DOE review ended long ago and no one seems to know when or whether the DOE will issue its long-delayed report. Meanwhile, no new charter schools have been authorized and now Leon is trying to shut functioning ones down, in direct defiance of the voices of Newark parents who have placed 12,000 children on charter wait lists. Last year during the universal enrollment period 51% of parents listed a charter as their first choice.  

But Leon (or NTU or someone who controls him) doesn’t care what Newark parents think or which schools they want their children to attend. Parent voices are silenced so NPS can get cash to sustain schools like Malcolm Shabazz. 

Pinning hopes for integrity on the DOE seems like a fool’s errand but that’s where we are. All we can hope is that Lamont Repollet sees Leon’s ask as an opportunity to prove that he cares about New Jersey’s low-income children and their access to quality schools. Otherwise he and the Murphy Administration are complicit in privileging institutions over the aspirations of low-income black and brown families in Newark.

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