Properly managed charter schools wouldn't threaten futures of Newark students

Opinion by Don Soifer in the Star-Ledger


 A group of students and community organizers recently held a four-day sit-in at the Newark public school system's headquarters  protesting Superintendent Cami Anderson's leadership and demanding her resignation. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka announced his support for the protesters. 

The students deserve an "A" for effort and civic participation. Everyone can agree that the Newark's school system needs to improve, even with recent gains. But if they did more homework about the issues affecting school quality in Newark, they might redirect their protest. 

One might guess that a lack of funding accounts for the school district's struggles. But the state and city have reported spending at least $17,000 each year for every pupil enrolled in Newark's schools, and some studies suggest that total underestimates certain costs by as much as one-third, omitting capital expenditures and other costs. That price tag should purchase students a high-quality education.

If it's not a lack of money, how can we improve school quality in Newark?

The recently re-appointed superintendent Anderson, for example, has proposed expanding the number of public charter schools operating in the city.

This has drawn sharp opposition from New Jersey Communities United, the group that organized the protest at the superintendent's office. The group's website explains that New Jersey Communities United opposes "efforts to funnel tax dollars into private and charter schools" which would "break public education" and "doom our young people to dismal futures."

Would allowing more charter schools in Newark threaten kids' futures? Not if steps are taken to ensure that the seats they offer are high-quality alternatives. 

And the charter school experience nationally indicates that the best way to accomplish this is to bolster the quality of charter school oversight using proven strategies. 

Research by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes shows that charter schools accountable to the most effective authorities wielding a staunch focus on quality have resulted in powerful student outcomes. 

Evidence from New Jersey suggests that charter schools already offer a positive learning environment.

New York City and Washington, D.C., jurisdictions widely recognized for having the nation's strongest charter oversight authorities, demonstrate what Newark and other New Jersey school districts can gain from the right policy changes.

Students in Washington, D.C., charters demonstrated an extra 72 days and 101 days of learning in reading and math, respectively, over a single school year, compared with students in their traditional neighborhood schools. New York City's charter school students gained an average of one month of learning in reading and five months in math.

Several pending proposals in the legislature would change the ways charters are approved and by whom. Bills by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) and state Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Parsippany) propose some limited improvements in the current state system for charter oversight. Each would establish new, independent charter authorizers, but weakened by overlaps of authority that seem destined to allow politics to creep into education decisions. 

House Education Committee Chair Patrick Diegnan (D-South Plainfield) has a proposal that would require charter school applicants to navigate around veto power by local school districts an arrangement comparable to giving McDonald's a veto over allowing a Burger King to move in across the street.

Evidence from New Jersey suggests that charter schools already offer a positive learning environment. State test scores in November showed that students attending charter schools in the state increased their proficiency rates for the fifth year in a row, while narrowing the achievement gap between minority students and their peers. In comparisons, test scores at New Jersey's public school system as a whole were flat, showing no improvement. 

Why would groups like New Jersey Communities United oppose plans to offer more choice to families in Newark and across the state? 

A review of Department of Labor disclosure reports indicates that New Jersey Communities United received $70,000 from the AFL-CIO, the federation of the nation's labor unions. Teachers unions have long opposed efforts to open charter schools, which create pressure on traditional public schools and their employees to improve their performance or risk losing students and funding to better schools.

The Newark students protesting in the superintendent's office deserve credit for becoming engaged. But learning from the experiences of other cities might lead them redirect their energies. 

Don Soifer is Executive Vice President of the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. He is Vice Chair of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board. 

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