I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

High Times For Charters in Newark

It's a good time to be a charter school in Newark:
As part of a comprehensive plan to overhaul the state’s largest school district, Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson wants to increase access to charter schools by expanding them into district-owned buildings.
The district also plans to convert three elementary schools into early childhood centers, relocate five schools to under-utilized facilities and transform three comprehensive high schools into smaller academies. The goal, Anderson said, is to improve local options for all residents.
"You should have options for great schools in your neighborhood or ward," Anderson said. "How do we get to that day faster and in every ward? We’re jump-starting change."
District officials are talking with officials from the TEAM, North Star and Newark Legacy charter schools and asking them to locate their additional classroom spaces to the Madison Avenue, Hawthorne Avenue, Bragaw Avenue, Alexander Street and Newton Street schools. At least three facilities, including Miller Street, would be shuttered. [emphasis mine]
Keep in mind that this is happening at the same time that Bill de Blasio - who won the mayoral race in New York City by a landslide - is reversing the charter expansion mania that gripped Gotham during the Bloomberg years. Perhaps Anderson is trying to make life good for charters while she can, knowing that the upcoming mayors race in Newark will almost inevitably put this issue front and center, potentially imperiling charter expansion on this side of the Hudson.

Of course, we've been over this on this blog about a billion times, but I'll say it again: "successful" charters in Newark do not serve the same populations of children as the public schools. Some, like North Star, engage in ridiculously high levels of student attrition. TEAM, while not as bad, appears to get its "successes" mostly by spending more and serving fewer special education and economically disadvantaged children - in other words, it's not replicable on a large scale.

And the notion that there is a huge demand for charters in general has been way overblown.

Demand is concentrated in a few "high-performing" charters that, again, tend to serve fewer children with special needs and/or engage in patterns of attrition. Nonetheless, NPS wants to turn over several of its facilities to these charters, rather than concentrate on making the public schools that are currently housed there better.

This is more than an education issue; it's also political. Because there are two layers of disenfranchisement with this policy that ought to concern all of Newark's citizens:

First, it's become increasingly clear that charter schools are not public schools: charters may be publicly funded, but they are not subject to the same laws and regulations as, say, the NPS schools. Again, it's not just me saying this: the National Labor Relations Board, the Census Bureau, the CA Charter Schools Association, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals... all say charters are not state actors, which means students, parents, and teachers may all give up legal protections when enrolled in or working at a charter.

By forcing families to participate in a "potfolio" district, where schools offer different legal protections and/or levels of political accountability, Anderson is asking families to weigh their desire to have their children attend a school that likely offers little more than a beneficial peer effect against their need for a school that is accountable to them through their elected leaders and the judicial system. "Voting with your feet" is a nice platitude, but it is not the same as accountability through the democratic process; "choice" is not a substitute for autonomy.

Second, Newark is a state-run district; thanks to NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf, it looks like it will stay that way for years to come. Anderson is accountable only to Governor Chris Christie, who lost Essex County by a huge margin. In other words: Newark's citizens are having more charter schools shoved down their throats by a governor they rejected in the last election.

But hold on - it gets even worse:
New Jersey has committed $100 million to repair Newark public schools, school district officials said.
The funds are "a key first step" to make sure all students attend schools that are safe and conducive to learning, according to school officials.
"You cannot communicate high standards in a classroom with ceiling leaks and crumbling walls. We must make significant investments and this is a step in the right direction," Superintendent Cami Anderson said. "We fought hard for this — with support from many advocates, including the School Advisory Board — and we will keep fighting until every building gives students what they deserve." [emphasis mine]
No arguing with that, but it begs a question: which schools in Newark are going to get the money? Will it flow toward the buildings that will be housing the charters Anderson has invited in?
The money, which was announced on Friday, comes from the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, established by state law in 2007 following a state Supreme Court ruling that all students have the right to the same quality of education.
The SDA has been roundly criticized for its slow pace in releasing funds to support the state’s poorest districts. Last summer, a coalition of parent, union and religious groups urged Gov. Chris Christie to speed up the process of repairing hundreds of schools in Newark, Trenton and other cities.
The authority oversees $3.9 billion in bonds approved by voters for school construction and repairs. Some of the funds go to suburban districts, but most is targeted to the mostly urban former Abbott districts.
The SDA referred all questions to the Newark school district.
Well, isn't that convenient? Just as NPS announces it will install charter operators into more of its buildings, that state comes up with a cool $100 million to repair its facilitates. And if you're curious as to where that money will be spent, don't ask the SDA; ask NPS. Golly, what are the odds?

Christie just announced his new chief of the SDA will be Charles McKenna, a friend of the Christiecrats who, like State Senator Teresa Ruiz, share the governor's love for charter school expansion:
“I have a good relationship with Mr. McKenna, and as are many in the state, we are anxious about the pace of work,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate education committee. “We haven’t moved quickly enough.”
Ruiz's patron, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, even honored McKenna as the 2013 Irishman of the Year (how a guy with a name like "DiVencenzo" gets to make that call I have no idea...). Given Christie's control of both the SDA and NPS - as well as his alliances with the Essex political machine - it seems reasonable to ask, even at this early date, where this school repair money is going to flow.

NPS and Anderson are already crowing about the funds coming their way: they even produced a slick video about the poor condition of many of Newark's buildings. What they haven't laid out yet is how this first $100 million is going to be spent. There are shovel-ready school projects in Newark right now: will the SDA funds be directed there?

Or is life going to get even better for charter schools in Newark?

This ought to disturb every taxpayer in the state. Giving Chris Christie and Cami Anderson carte blanche to spend money on publicly-owned facilities without local input or accountability is bad enough; what's worse is the disturbing possibility that this money will go to benefit only those children whose parents enroll them in non-public charter schools.

We don't ask suburban parents to choose between poorly-resourced public schools with demoralized staff and better-resourced charters that have no accountability to locally elected governments. We don't give state grants to suburban schools and expect them to let the state decide if the money should go to facilities for charters.

Why do we think it's fine, however, to do this in Newark?

Oh, yeah - that's why...

Newark charter schools' best friends? We'll see...

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