With Friends Like Biden and Murphy, Who Needs Enemies?

Last week Newark Public Schools District reported the alarming news that, based on results from internal assessments, only 6% of students will meet expectations in math by the end of the school year. This week we learned the Biden Administration’s Education Department (ED) had drafted new rules for its $440 million Charter School Program—started by President Bill Clinton and strengthened by President Barack Obama— which provides start-up grants for these independent public schools. The ED wants to “heap onerous and unreasonable requirements” on for-profit charters (which comprise 9% of all US charters) and non-profit charters alike, compelling them to “partner” with districts; Dale Chu says that “would bring charter growth to a standstill.” In New Jersey, where traditional districts are uniformly hostile to what they view as competition and where Gov. Murphy’s Education Department has cancelled long-planned expansions of high-achieving non-profit charters with long wait lists (in NJ, all charters are non-profit), Biden’s decidedly unprogressive move is an additional kick in the rear for all who value parent autonomy in making education choices for their children, particularly families who can’t afford to move to a better district, our most common form of public school choice.

This confluence of news–Newark students’ severe learning loss and the US ED’s proposed rules that would stymie public school choice in places where parents need them most— collided with the NJ Education Department’s release on Wednesday of the results of Start Strong assessments given last fall. In a press release, the New Jersey Public Charter School Association (NJPSA) did its own drill-down comparing the results of students who attend traditional district schools and those who attend charters, which are clustered in urban centers.

Here are the results:

Analysis shows students in the state’s five largest charter cities – Newark, Trenton, Camden, Jersey City, and Paterson – are 32 percent more likely to approach or meet grade level standards in English language arts (ELA) and 55 percent more likely to approach or meet grade level standards in mathematics compared to their traditional district peers. These results clearly demonstrate that public charter schools have accelerated student learning for low-income students of color during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Data from Trenton was especially strong, with charters 78 percent and 157 percent more likely to approach or exceed grade level standards in ELA and in math, respectively.

So, sure, the Murphy Administration should cancel expansion plans approved years ago. And the Biden Administration should make it impossibly onerous for aspiring alternative schools to access federal start-up costs.

Here are the full results from NJPCSA:

Let’s take a look at Trenton, right in the Statehouse’s backyard, where public charter students are “78 percent and 157 percent more likely to approach or exceed grade level standards in ELA and in math, respectively.” There, the Murphy Administration backtracked on the DOE’s erstwhile approval for Paul Robeson Charter School to add a kindergarten, first, and second grade, even though last year it was named a Lighthouse District, signifying its status as a “beacon of success for public education in New Jersey.” Murphy also nixed the long-planned addition to Achievers Early College Prep Charter School, stranding 90 current ninth-graders who had planned on continuing there in 10th grade. Here’s Freya Lund, School Director at Paul Robeson:

From day one of the pandemic, we pivoted to meet the needs of students and families in Trenton by providing them with internet connectivity and daily phone calls to ensure we stayed connected to students. We made sure no child slipped through the cracks during this extremely challenging time. Our mission is to build a caring school community that provides a personalized education, and we continue to remain steadfast in this commitment.

But, sure, let’s deny low-income Black and Brown families in Trenton the opportunity to send their children to a high-achieving school. How is this “progressive?”

How about Jersey City, which include some of the most diverse public schools in the state? There, charter students outperformed the state average in English Language Arts with 73.7 percent of students approaching or meeting grade level standards compared to 69.2 percent statewide. More than 60 percent of the 6,000 students enrolled in Jersey City charter schools are eligible to receive free or reduced price lunch, and more than 3,200 students sit on charter wait lists in Jersey City today. Despite serving far more low-income families than the state average, charter schools in Jersey City have demonstrated strong learning gains during the last several years.

Newark, the state’s largest charter sector with more than 20,000 students enrolled in charter schools, closed in on statewide averages in ELA with public charter schools, coming within five percentage points of the state average. Nearly all of Newark’s public charter school students are students of color. Eighty-five percent of Newark’s public charter school students come from economically disadvantaged communities and more than ten percent are students with disabilities. More than 4,000 Newark students sit on charter wait lists today. Dana Madison, a parent of two students at North Star Academy, the highest-performing school in the district and one of the schools denied expansion by Murphy, wondered, “why is it acceptable for the Governor to let under-performing schools just continue while he shuts down schools that work?”

Here’s more from NJPCSA’s press release:

“COVID-19 has upended the lives of every New Jerseyan, especially families who live in our most economically challenged communities. The 2021 Start Strong results are undeniable: Public charter schools are providing stable and welcoming learning environments that accelerate student learning for families of color and we must provide more high-quality public charter school options to meet the learning loss crisis facing our state and nation,” said Harry Lee, president of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association (NJPCSA). “With 20,000 students on charter school wait lists, we urge the Murphy Administration and Commissioner of Education to support excellent public charter schools that provide a lifeline to families who are desperatelyseeking the best education for their children.”

“During the last two years, public charter school educators did whatever it took to meet the needs of families in their communities including providing technology for remote learning and delivering school meals for hungry families,” said TJ Best, Director of Government Affairs for NJPCSA. “Public charter schools reopened their doors for in-person instruction far earlier than most urban school districts throughout New Jersey, helping to mitigate the severe disruptions in student learning caused by the pandemic. While there is still a long road ahead, our schools are looking forward to collaborating with traditional district schools to ensure all students get the support they need to not only grow academically, but also socially and emotionally.”

In February, NJPCSA launched the #LetMyChildLearn campaign following the NJDOE’s denial of expansions for high-performing charter schools in Newark, Trenton, Kearny, New Brunswick, and Paterson. Because of these denials, hundreds of students will no longer be able to remain at the schools they love throughout their educational careers. Decisions on reconsiderations of charter school denials are currently pending. NJPCSA urges the NJDOE to utilize this new data when reconsidering these charter school denials to ensure that all students can attend a public school that is accelerating learning and mitigating the devastating impacts of the pandemic.




Laura Waters

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