This op-ed, written by the Star-Ledger Editorial Board, was first published here.
Success is hard to find in urban public schools these days, especially given the pandemic, but some of the charter schools in Newark have achieved it, showing remarkable results. So by what bizarre logic is the superintendent now trying to snuff this out?
Let’s look at the evidence. Third graders are failing wildly in the district, where only 19 percent of them can read at grade level. In some district schools, that percentage drops into the single digits. But at North Star Academy’s charter schools in Newark, 60% of the kids are passing third grade reading tests. And yet, Superintendent Roger León is trying to block their expansion, which would force some families to move their children back to district schools against their explicit wishes.
León is appealing the state’s decision to grant this top charter network an expansion of 492 new seats, which would help hundreds of desperate Newark families who’ve been stuck on its waiting list. This is part of a long, irrational campaign of his, designed to buttress his own district bureaucracy rather than do what’s best for kids.
Like his sabotage of the city’s common enrollment system, which was created to prevent charter schools from “creaming” the best, most motivated students and parents. León messed with the process, tightening the rules to make it harder to apply, which ended up driving the charter schools out of the common system. That’s bad for the district, too.
And he’s been trying to claw back a school building that was purchased by another popular charter school, KIPP, even in the face of the district’s declining enrollment. The building is currently occupied by more than 500 charter students, and his battle to reclaim it has cost the city at least $600,000 in legal fees as of last August. It’s an absurd waste of money, more evidence of his attacks on families seeking out charters, the most popular schools in the city.
And what good is a building if it’s not doing what it was designed to do – educate kids? Look at Chancellor Avenue School, where 80% of the kids can’t read on grade level, but the district has hung a banner over the doorway deceptively advertising this as a “Rising Blue Ribbon School.” León is busy building these facades and making false claims, instead of getting the hard work done of lifting kids’ performance.
Meanwhile, hard data showing the success at charter schools is beyond dispute. North Star’s campuses are located in the poorest wards in Newark, yet its students still outperform their wealthier peers: Last year, they beat the state average in both math and literacy. And the special education students at North Star performed nearly identically as the general student population in the district of Newark. Why wouldn’t we want more kids at a school like this, where they are actually learning?
The Murphy administration finally granted North Star an expansion in February, after years of rejections; and now, after all that, these Newark families hoping for a coveted seat must contend with León, who’s trying to stop this move and force their kids back into district schools that are failing.
“The only thing we should all be doing is supporting what is working,” says Jasmine Morrison, a North Star parent. “And that is what you’re going to hear from most parents that you talk to.”
León decided to launch this fight against North Star without the approval of the city’s school board, which appears to violate state regulation. And most Newark parents don’t want the district to attack successful schools, sabotage the city’s enrollment system, and spend their taxpayer dollars to claw back a building, Morrison said.
“Any parent you talk to and say, ‘Hey, would you prefer your child go to this building, or do you want them to read?’ They’re going to say, ‘I am going to take reading for 100,’” Morrison told us.
Because this is not a small thing: Their children’s fate is on the line. Third grade reading scores are a crucial measure, because kids who can’t read well by the end of that year are more likely to become dropouts. So it’s hard to overstate the crisis that Newark is now facing.
León wants to shrink these schools where 60% of the kids are passing third grade reading tests, in favor of the schools he runs where as few as 3% might be passing. That’s inexcusable. Because ultimately, he is sabotaging Newark kids.