What Do Toxic Charter School Politics Mean for Newark Students?

A few weeks ago, as National School Choice Week came to a close, Bellwether Co-founder and Partner Andy Rotherham wrote in the Hill about the toxic state of politics around charter schools, and the blind spots of both charter opponents and advocates: 

Any effort to curtail charter schooling must deal forthrightly with how that would limit access to good schools for families that historically have been denied good educational options. Proposals to expand charters must ensure that charters are partners in meeting all the educational challenges in different communities. The current national debate lets everyone off the hook on the hard questions. 

Too often in the debates over charter schools, nuanced points about how to best create and sustain high-quality schools get buried by adversarial talking points from charter opponents and supporters. 

Right now, there’s no better place to watch those frustrating debates in action than Newark, NJ. Last month, in a surprisingly aggressive move against the city’s charter sector, Superintendent Roger Léon urged the state to halt to charter school expansion and close four charter schools up for renewal, citing the budgetary impact of charter schools on the district, mediocre test results, and low enrollment of English learners and students with disabilities at some of the schools up for renewal.  

school bus driving down the street in Newark, NJ

Via flickr user Paul Sableman: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pasa/13682552433

Charter parents, schools, and advocates struck back, with official public statements and refutations of Léon’s claims. At the same time, shady anonymous flyers attacking Léon sprang up across the city, warning parents “your school could be next!” 

As this latest district-versus-charter skirmish played out, a lot got lost in the noise. 

Charter supporters should not forget that while Newark’s charter sector is generally high performing, the bedrock of charter schools’ success is results-based accountability: if a school is not meeting the goals and terms of its charter and its responsibilities to students and families, by design it should close, and students should have support to find a better option. These decisions can be complicated, yes, but in at least one case in Newark, the state agreed that despite the disruption of a closure, students would be better served elsewhere. And many of Léon’s complaints about the schools in question — particularly their records of serving special education and English learner students — are valid concerns worth closer scrutiny.  

At the same time, Léon’s calls for closure went well beyond the particular cases of each school, and framed charters as depriving the district of a “fiscal payment stream.” The superintendent’s sweeping stance against current and future charters is at odds with the choices of more than 1-in-3 Newark families in his city, and may have upset a reasonably collaborative relationship between district leaders, the city’s mayor, and the charter sector. Fighting to close or curtail charters for the sake of the dollars that come with each student will do little to earn families’ confidence, with over 50% of Newark kindergarten applications in 2017 listing a charter as their first-choice school. 

When we featured Newark’s story as one of our Eight Cities in 2018, the city schools had just emerged from two decades of state control, which included aggressive reform strategies and a huge infusion of philanthropic funds, resulting in a transformed school landscape and significantly better student outcomes in both district and charter schools. Newark has important policy infrastructure in place to support equitable choice for families, such as a unified enrollment system. In a recent poll, 63% of Newark voters agreed that “public charter schools are an important part of the public school landscape.” 

From the outside, it looks like Newark is a case where high-quality charters and district schools have both improved in tandem. Combined enrollment is at a new high, indicating more families are choosing to entrust their children’s education to the city’s public schools — district and charter. Newark is among several cities grappling with what it means for a large charter sector and a district to co-exist, and hopefully both thrive, in the long term. Actual evidence, outcomes for students, and lived realities for families most in need of high-quality educational opportunities should be at the center of the debate. But that won’t happen if the city’s educational leaders (district, charter, and otherwise) dodge the tough questions and skirt the evidence in favor of adversarial talking points and short-term wins. 

This post was inspired by Eight Cities, Bellwether’s 2018 multimedia exploration of large, urban districts achieving significant academic improvement.