In Newark, charter schools beef up for political fight
Editorial by Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger Editorial Board
The failure of urban schools, we are often told, can be traced to the apathy of urban parents when it comes to their children's success in the classroom.
It seems that in Newark, no one got that memo.
Because about 400 parents and their children crammed into the city council's hearing room Monday night, filling the seats and balconies, and overflowing into hallways where they strained to hear.
What drove that kind of passion? A bid by North Star charter schools to build a new K-12 building on an old parking lot in the Central Ward.
"We outnumbered the teachers union by 10-1, and that tells you where the mood of this city is," says Barbara Martinez, a spokeswoman for North Star.
This is something entirely new. Until now, the charters have paid little attention to politics. They have served as the city's political punching bag, like the passive kid on the playground who never hits back.
But lately, the charters have been taking vitamins and doing lots of push-ups. With nearly 1 in 3 Newark kids in charter schools now, they have a reserve army of parents, one that grows every year.
And they recently hired a professional political operative, Muhammed Akil, who has built a staff of 20 local people and intends to hire more.
"The growing number does affects the politics," Akil says. "And we intend to weigh in heavily."
This could change Newark's political landscape, just as the state prepares to yield control of the city schools sometime in the next few years.
One impact could be on school elections. The charter schools could finally outmuscle the city's teachers' union, as they did Monday night. North Star's new building was approved by a vote of 8-1.
But the bigger question concerns the charter schools' collision course with Mayor Ras Baraka, who made charter schools a chief target during his election last year and vowsnow to block any further expansion.
Baraka grudgingly concedes that many charters are doing remarkable work. But he says their success comes at the expense of the traditional schools, which lose state aid every time a student moves to a charter.
"It's about 60 percent of the kids we are ignoring because we are so enthralled with these schools," he says. "I have to worry about the kids from every school. I have to make sure one is not sucking the life out of the other.
Let's look at that argument, first the merits, and then the politics.
Are charters "sucking the life" out of traditional schools? When a child moves to a charter school, state law provides that up to 90 percent of the money follows. The 10 percent is supposed to help the district cover its fixed costs, like buildings.
Baraka says that's not enough, and blames that formula for the cuts at district schools in recent years, which he saw first-hand as a high school principal.
"Ultimately, it's still about resources," he says. "We cut chorus. Then you go to athletic programs. You go into the clubs and newspapers. And after a while, you cut an English teacher, a math teacher, a technology coach."
But are charters really driving that? Trenton has frozen aid to schools across the state, despite built-in cost increases for things like health care and teacher salaries. And the state' makes no allowance for the growing number of students in Newark, which has mushroomed by 10 percent in the last three years.
"That is the core challenge, and it is independent of charter schools," says Superintendent Chris Cerf, who opposes Baraka's freeze on charter expansion. "There is some truth to it, but the fundamental problem in our budget has nothing to do with charters."
Spending in district schools has dropped by about $2,000 per pupil in the last three years, roughly the same as in charter schools, according to the district.
So where is the injustice? And couldn't the district find places to cut its own costs before clawing back the charter money?
One example: The district spends $1,200 per kid on custodial services, and the charters spend $400.
Call me crazy, but I suspect Baraka is keeping careful track of the politics of this. He got solid support in his election last year from the teachers union, which loses members as charters expand. And union support is no small thing in a city with low turnout.
"We had several hundred boots in that election," says the union chief, John Abeigon. "We did mailers. We did phone banks."
Abeigon views that the charter movement as the work of the devil, in alliance with sinister Wall Street hedge funds.
"We're attacking the corporations behind all this – BlackRock, Citigroup, Prudential," he says.
Please, don't ask me to explain that. Call him.
My guess is Baraka might flip on this question as the politics change. The state controls the growth of charter schools, and all signs point to continued expansion in Newark, whether the mayor likes it or not.
He is a shrewd politician who can see the direction this is headed. Even now, he seems careful to leave himself room to maneuver.
"I am not going to be used as a mouthpiece against charters, and I'm not going to be used as a mouthpiece against public schools," he says.
He doesn't dispute the remarkable success of North Star and the other major chain in town, TEAM Academy, also known as KIPP.
How can you at this point? These chains are proven. They are educating kids who are just as poor as the traditional schools, and they are getting much better results with much less money.
The shrinking band of die-hards on the left who dispute that are starting to sound a lot like conservatives who dispute the science behind climate change.
Still, Baraka can't seem to compliment the charters.
"I'm glad kids are learning," he says. "There are people on the ground working hard...they have altruistic motives, and I respect that. But at the top level, ultimately it's about expansion at all costs."
One parent at Monday's meeting, Jody Pittman, said she was offended by opponents of the charter schools who suggested parents like her were "privileged."
She an unemployed single mother of two children, and says her third-grade daughter is thriving at a KIPP school. Her teacher calls to check in every day, and takes her daughter home for play dates with his own child in Clark.
"He is part of my family," Pittman says. "I have no political ties. But if they don't expand, by the time my baby gets to 6th grade she'll be forced back to a failing school. They just don't care about my baby there."
Newark is packed with families like hers, as we saw Monday night.
She may not be political now. But given the trends, Baraka would be wise to keep an eye on that.