Parents reshaping debate around Newark schools, district, charter or magnet

Opinion by Muhammed Akil, Executive Director of Parent Coalition for Excellent Education

11/18/15

 In public forums, on social media and in neighborhoods across Newark, we have witnessed years of consistent toxicity when it comes to debating the issue of education. But this school year, new voices, with a new approach and vision, are joining this long debate. 

At school advisory board meetings and city planning board meetings, public school parents, representing magnet schools, district schools and charter schools – are coming together to speak out and build a new collaborative approach to solve our education problems. What we are now seeing is the beginning of a much needed paradigm shift in how we engage and debate the issue of education.

For too long, this debate has been directed by union leaders, the state and SAB members, many of whom have benefitted from school choice personally or have exercised it for their own children. These factions have demanded community leaders and parents to choose sides, when the reality is that there is "no one size fits all" solution for our children's education aspirations. 

In July 1995, the N.J. State Department of Education conducted an investigation that led to the state taking control of the Newark School District. In that document, the NJDEP stated, "The Newark School District has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children. ... As a body, it has been unable to summon either the sense of urgency or the willingness to take decisive action necessary for change to occur." 

Twenty years later, our school district has not improved enough to satisfy the most basic obligations. Many parents are not happy and many have empowered themselves to find education success through choice. 

In the tradition of the federally financed African Free School Program of the 1970s, public school choice provides Newark children with opportunity, stronger learning environments that address the specific needs of each child and showcases that there are actual public education systems in Newark that are thriving. 

Most of all, through choice, a parent's voice is strengthened.

A rapidly growing number of Newark parents want a voice and they want choice. They want our school and elected leaders to stop following a discourse that just has not worked or served Newark's children for decades. It is time we follow the leadership of Newark parents and change the education debate.

It is time to unite around a simple concept – that the growth of all our public schools, whether they are district, charter or magnet, should be based on its ability to ensure that Newark students can compete for well-paying jobs in the future, through college or vocational training. 

As we have seen in public meetings this year, parents know that district, charters and magnets are all public schools and they do not want any to be victimize because they challenge the status quo or strategize to fight the bureaucracy that have plague our students. 

Secondly, whether at the local or state level, parents want Newark to build more communication between district schools, charters and magnets. If something is working, if there is an educational method that is serving our students, it must be showcased to the broadest possible audience. A good idea should never be isolated to a selected group of students. All our public schools, including charters, have a moral obligation to aggressively share their best practices. 

Finally, and most important, local control must become a reality. All school related information and decisions must move beyond the staff at Newark's public schools headquarters. Parents must be empowered to make decisions regarding their children's future and it is time for elected and school leaders to act.

Listening to the desires of parents cannot make up for decades of low performance and complacency, but it would be a good start. All of us, no matter what side of this issue we sit on when it comes to education, want the very best for our students. But the passion we have for better schools will only become a reality if we follow the voices of Newark's parents. It is time we build a new paradigm of discourse, collaboration and empowerment, Newark's children deserve nothing less.

Muhammed Akil serves as executive director for the Parent Coalition For Excellent Education.

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