charter-district debate

As New Jersey takes a close look at charter schools, here are three big questions in Newark

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Only a handful of people attended a public forum on charter schools in Newark Monday.

Newark residents had a chance this week to sound off on charter schools, which remain a lightning rod in the city even as they educate more than one in three Newark students.

As part of a statewide charter school “listening tour,” the state education department hosted a public forum Monday in Newark, where nearly 18,900 students attend charters — making Newark the charter capital of the state. Yet of 90 registered attendees, only six people showed up.

“I enjoyed this,” said Denise Cole, an advocate for Newark’s traditional schools, near the end of the 80-minute meeting. But, she added, “If we wouldn’t have come, y’all wouldn’t have had nobody here.”

The unusually low turnout soon sparked rumors that some unnamed entity had packed the guest list to block others from attending. Both charter critics and supporters said they were unable to register because the sign-up list quickly reached capacity. (A state spokeswoman said Tuesday that unregistered guests would not have been turned away, though it appears not many people knew that.)

The kerfuffle could be seen as a microcosm of the charter-school debate in Newark, where reliable information can be elusive and deeply held convictions are often paired with deep suspicions.

It also added to the uncertainty surrounding the state’s charter tour. The education department announced the campaign last month as a way to gather feedback on the publicly funded, privately operated schools that educate just over 3 percent of New Jersey students but roughly 35 percent in Newark. The tour has included schools visits, invite-only focus groups, and public forums like the one Monday.

It comes amid a “comprehensive review” of the department’s charter-school policies ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy, who has been far more ambivalent about the schools than his charter-friendly predecessor, Chris Christie. Murphy has floated a pause on approving new charter schools during the review, which prompted fears of a “stealth moratorium” this year after Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet rejected every application to open new charters schools except one. Repollet has denied that a moratorium is in place, but said he plans to “modernize and change” the state’s more than 20-year-old charter rules.

The vague messages out of Trenton have given advocates on both sides of the charter debate hope that their input during the listening tour might help convince the state to take either a friendlier or tougher stance toward the sector. Yet, on Monday, officials were reluctant to say whether the feedback they were gathering would have any impact on their policy review.

“We’re just getting feedback, period,” said Carmen Cusido, director of the education department’s public affairs office. The agency expects to release a report in early 2019 summarizing the responses to its questions about how the state oversees charter schools. The public can also submit comments online.

In addition to Monday’s forum, officials visited People’s Prep Charter School and held focus groups in Newark hosted by the Newark Teachers Union, which has opposed the charter sector, and several groups that represent it, including the New Jersey Charter School Association, the Newark Charter School Fund and North Star Academy Charter School. Those sessions were open only to guests invited by the host organizations.

At the union’s meeting and Monday’s forum, as well as in interviews with advocates, several themes emerged. They point to still-simmering debates about Newark charter schools that are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Expansion — should the charter sector keep growing?

Newark’s charter-school sector has ballooned over the past decade.

Since 2008, the share of students who attend charters in Newark has nearly quadrupled — from 9 percent in 2008 to about 35 percent today. By 2023, that number could swell to 44 percent, according to one estimate, as the city’s charters continue to fill seats that were preapproved by the Christie administration.

Sources: NJDOE, NPS, Jesse Margolis/MarGrady Research, Julia Sass Rubin/Rutgers University. Note: Figures exclude pre-K and include non-resident charter students. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

The exodus of students has forced the district to slash services and close schools, even as its enrollment has started to rebound in recent years. Alarmed by the charter sector’s head-spinning expansion, critics point out that charter funding flows out of the district’s budget — but only the state has the authority to allow new charters or close existing ones.

“We ought to keep in mind that the original purpose of charter schools was never to create a parallel public education system that was somehow immune to oversight by local communities,” said Steve Baker, communications director for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

While some NJEA members work in charters, most are not unionized. The NJEA has called for a suspension of approvals for new charters until the state completes its policy review. And Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has called for a more lasting moratorium, saying the sector’s continued growth would “suck the life out of traditional schools.”

The state considers charter schools’ academics, finances, and organization when deciding whether to close them — a step the state has taken in Newark several times in recent years — or let them grow. Schools can ask for additional seats during their re-authorization process every five years, or in a separate expansion request. The deadline to make that request is Dec. 1.

“That’s going to be a really important decision point for the department,” said Harry Lee, interim president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, or NJCSA. “We want to make sure high-quality schools can grow.”

Performance — what have charters achieved?

Newark has one of the top-performing charter sectors in the nation.

An oft-cited 2015 study out of Stanford University found that Newark charter students, on average, made greater annual gains in math and reading than their district-school counterparts — and by a wider margin than charter students in any other major city except Boston.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Participants shared their views on charter schools with state officials at a focus group hosted by the Newark Teachers Union.

The sector continued its streak on this year’s state PARCC exams. About 60 percent of charter students in grades three to eight passed the 2018 reading tests, compared to 35 percent of district students, according to an analysis by NJCSA. In math, 48 percent of charter students were proficient versus 26 percent of district students who were. And for the first time, Newark charter students bested the statewide average in both subjects.

“In the second highest-performing state in the country, that’s insane,” said Ryan Hill, founder and CEO of KIPP New Jersey, which oversees eight Newark charter schools.

However, not all charters excelled. At least five of the city’s 19 charter operators had schools that scored below the district average. And the city’s district-run magnet schools, which admit students based on prior academic achievement, outperformed charter schools on average on the high-school English exam.

Critics are also quick to point out that the district serves slightly more students with disabilities than the charter sector and far more students who are still learning English. In 2017-18, just 1 percent of charter students had limited English proficiency, compared to nearly 13 percent of district students.

“There should be a more level playing field,” said Tina Taylor, president of the union representing principals and other administrators in district schools.

Funding — do charters get too much money or not enough?

The battle over charter schools often boils down to resources. In a state where charter funding comes out of district budgets, a boost for charter schools can feel like a loss for traditional schools.

“Money is the real issue,” said James Harris, president of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators and a graduate of Newark’s former South Side High School.

Last school year, the district expected to transfer about a quarter of its budget, or $237 million, to charter schools — up from just $60 million in the 2008-09 school year. This year, the Murphy administration added $37.5 million to the district’s budget. But that may not be enough to stave off future cuts if more students decamp for charters, carrying their per-pupil dollars with them.

Meanwhile, charter advocates are clamoring for more funding. Because charter schools are ineligible for certain types of state aid, they receive on average just 73 percent of per-pupil dollars rather than the 90 percent they are entitled to under state law, according to the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. Charter schools, unlike traditional districts, also do not get state money to pay for facilities.

However, some large charter operators also raise millions of dollars from private donors. One such operator, North Star Academy, says it uses private money for expanding schools but only public funds after they are fully grown. 

Critics complain that it can be difficult to track the flow of money through charters.

As the charter debate drags on, people on both sides say they are eager for ways to work together. At the end of Monday’s forum, Denise Cole, the traditional-school supporter, suggested forming a consortium where charter and district schools could exchange ideas.

“We can come together and compromise,” she said, “so that, in Newark, we have schools that all of our children are succeeding at.”

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”

reunion

Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.