Champion of Choice

In Newark, Cory Booker’s most enduring legacy may be city’s spreading charter schools

PHOTO: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images
Sen. Cory Booker announced his presidential bid outside his home in Newark, NJ last week.

Two decades ago, when Cory Booker was first entering politics in Newark, New Jersey, just 1 percent of the city’s students attended charter schools. Today, more than 30 percent do.

Along the way, Booker has been one of the biggest boosters of Newark’s charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. Booker, the U.S. senator and former Newark mayor who is running for president, has long spoken in moral tones about the right of poor families to reject struggling schools in favor of higher-quality options — whether run by districts or private operators. School choice, he has said, “liberated” some city students from “the imprisonment of institutions of failure.”

One beneficiary of his vigorous support has been Great Oaks Legacy, a charter network with a high school around the corner from Booker’s home in Newark’s once-blighted Central Ward, where he kicked off his presidential campaign last week.

As mayor, Booker helped bring to life a new downtown complex that featured affordable housing for teachers and space for three charter schools, including Great Oaks. As the charter staffed up, Booker would occasionally call a list of recruits provided by the principal and make a pitch for teaching in Newark. Other times, the celebrity mayor would share an evening of bowling and pizza with the schools’ Americorps tutors on his way home from City Hall.

“It was always cool if Cory Booker was on CNN the day before then came and hung out with us,” said Jared Taillefer, the network’s founding principal and now CEO, adding that Booker had a strong desire to get students into high-performing schools — a goal that could sometimes be achieved more quickly by backing new charters than tackling the slow, messy work of revamping district-run schools.

“If we’re going to sit and wait for the whole ship to turn around,” Taillefer said, “it just wasn’t going to work for kids.”

Yet Booker did eventually try to redirect the ship, famously raising $200 million in private donations to fund sweeping educational changes in Newark, including a new teachers contract, school closures, and new charter schools. Years later, many district schools continue to struggle with chronic absenteeism and low test scores, despite some improvements spurred by the reforms.

Meanwhile, the city’s charter sector, which vastly outperforms the district on state exams, more than tripled in enrollment during Booker’s two terms as mayor. Within a few years, more than 40 percent of students who go to school in Newark could attend charters.

All that creates a conundrum for Booker, who is campaigning partly on his record as mayor. Among all the controversial education changes he shepherded in Newark, the spread of charter schools may be his most enduring legacy, and the one with the clearest signs of success. Yet support for charters appears to be waning within the Democratic party — a yearslong shift intensified by the recent resurgence of teachers unions, a Democratic power base that tends to oppose charters, and President Trump’s embrace of school choice.

In Newark, charter schools today are popular with many families and less politically contentious than they once were. Yet some residents, including educators and others with deep ties to the district, believe the rise of charter schools has come at the expense of traditional ones, and that the crumbling campuses and floundering schools that linger in parts of the city are the flip side of Booker’s education legacy.

“I seriously question the depth of the senator’s commitment to public education,” said Mary Bennett, a former Newark principal and longtime schools advocate. “The district is still struggling after all these years as the charter expansion continues.”

Under Booker, charter growth and district pain

Booker’s embrace of charter schools spans the length of his political career.

Sen. Cory Booker at a Newark Public Schools event in 2018.

In 1998, when he was first elected to Newark’s city council, he joined the board of one of the city’s first charter schools, North Star Academy. Soon after, he founded a nonprofit devoted to expanding school choice in New Jersey.

In 2000, he gave a speech in which he called Newark’s troubled school system “repugnant” and endorsed taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools — a stance he later said dismayed many of his Democratic peers but won him new Republican donors. (He later spoke at gatherings of the American Federation for Children, a conservative group devoted to school choice that was chaired by Betsy DeVos, now Trump’s education secretary.)

After becoming mayor in 2006, Booker asked his wealthy patrons to help finance the city’s cash-strapped parks, police, and charter schools. To boost Team Academy, which is part of the national KIPP charter school network, Booker took donors on school tours and allowed the school to auction lunches with him for $20,000 each, according to the New York Times.

In 2008, he raised $20 million for a Newark Charter School Fund with money from several local and national philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation. (Both foundations provide funding to Chalkbeat.)

Booker has said that his promotion of charter schools during that period was less philosophical than practical: Newark’s mayor does not control the school system which, at that time, was run by the state. If he wanted to have an immediate impact on students, he reasoned, he would have to work around the district.

“It really wasn’t about charter schools,” said Ron Rice Jr., a former Newark councilman who is now senior director of government relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “His bottom line was: How do I improve public education options for the most kids in the fastest amount of time?”

By 2010, Booker had formed a pact with the state’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, to jointly reshape Newark’s schools. The mayor convinced Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to give $100 million to bankroll the effort, which other wealthy donors eventually matched.

The bulk of the money funded changes to the district, including to the teachers contract, which tied pay to performance. But nearly $58 million went to expanding and aiding charter schools, according to “The Prize,” journalist Dale Russakoff’s book detailing the overhaul. According to Russakoff, Booker gave Christie a confidential plan that included a goal to “make Newark the charter capital of the nation.”

As Newark’s charter schools spread, the district was left with fewer students and funding. Partly as a result, the district was forced to slash school budgets and lay off hundreds of employees. Cami Anderson, the superintendent who led the reforms, also closed some under-enrolled district schools and turned others over to charter operators.

Last school year, about 17,000 students attended Newark charter schools, up from 4,000 a decade earlier. Because school-aid follows students in New Jersey, the district had to transfer about $237 million to charter schools — roughly a quarter of its budget.

Student gains — and school disparities

Much of the commentary about the Newark overhaul has focused on the top-down changes imposed by highly paid outsiders and the fury that ignited in residents, who fought the layoffs and school closures. To Booker, who was elected to the Senate in 2013, that misses the point.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Great Oaks Legacy Charter School Principal Jared Taillefer with 10th-grader Tanesha Golding.

“Everybody, when it comes to education, wants to talk about everything but the achievement of our children,” he said in a January 2018 interview where he highlighted Newark students’ recent academic progress. “We know there’s a direct connection between even the most controversial things that were done and the success we’re having now.”

The most definitive effort yet to measure the impact of the Booker-era reforms was a study by Harvard researchers published last year. They found that, in both charter and district schools, students’ annual growth on state tests initially declined after the changes began in 2011. By 2016, students were making greater gains in English than they had before the reform, while their math growth was flat.

The researchers concluded that a portion of those later gains were due to improvements in school quality. But more than 60 percent of the English growth was driven by students leaving low-performing schools — whether by choice or because of closures — and entering higher-performing schools, which tended to be in the charter sector.

“It was mostly the moving to charters,” said Harvard Graduate School of Education economist Thomas Kane, who noted that Newark was home to an unusually strong charter sector even before the Zuckerberg-funded overhaul. (A review of the Harvard study questioned whether students’ recent improvements can be linked to the reforms.)

Booker and former district officials have insisted that it is not just charter schools that have made strides. The district’s test scores have continued to edge upwards, though they remain far below the charter sector’s scores. Since 2011, the district’s graduation rate has climbed nearly 20 percentage points. However, a huge gulf separates the district’s traditional high schools and its selective magnet schools — which were expanded under Booker — with magnet graduates far more likely to enroll in college and earn a degree.

It’s undeniable that by fostering the growth of Newark’s schools of choice — both charter and magnet — Booker has helped more students attend high-performing schools. But it’s also clear that many families have not benefited from that expansion.

Both magnet and charter schools in Newark continue to enroll fewer students with disabilities and those still learning English than traditional schools do. (A new enrollment system that lets families use a single application to apply to most district and charter schools has helped narrow the gap, but disparities persist.)

Jacqueline Foote said she pulled her son, who has autism, out of University Heights Charter School after preschool because it was not meeting his needs. She placed him alongside his siblings in Quitman Street School, a district school a short walk from Booker’s home. In 2017, 30 percent of Quitman students had disabilities, compared to 10 percent in the University Heights network.

Quitman is “OK,” Foote said, but she’s still searching for the right school for her children. Like other parents, she said she is more concerned about the quality of the school than the type.

“People are looking for a good school,” she said.

Even as the politics around charter schools shift, they are here to stay in Newark: Unlike other Booker-era reforms, such as the teachers contract that can be renegotiated locally, only the state can revoke charters. And they are sure to remain part of the national debate, too.

At a meeting with Iowa voters Friday, a woman told Booker that she appreciated his efforts to bring charter schools to Newark. “But,” she said, “I ask about your commitment to work for excellent public education for all children.”

governance

Aurora school board considers whether to close or renew large charter school

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
File photo of book bins in a charter school classroom.

The Aurora school board is considering whether to renew a charter school — if it meets a long list of conditions — even though it has ignored district concerns about its finances and governing board.

The board last renewed Vanguard Classical School’s charter for just one year, because of concerns over conflicts of interest. Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said he struggled with the renewal recommendation, due in December, because he first planned to recommend closure, but then decided to give Vanguard more time to provide information.

“The ultimate thing that I keep very heavily in mind around this kind of question is whether or not student needs are being met,” Munn said. “In this circumstance, we have not had any question about their student needs being met. In that context I felt very reluctant to recommend revocation.”

The Aurora school board will make its decision March 5.

Among conditions for Vanguard, the district suggests the school replace its board to include two parents and exclude employees of Ability Connection Colorado, a non-profit that founded the school and is now contracted to manage some services for Vanguard.

School leaders told the Aurora school board on Tuesday that they’re willing to comply with the conditions, and said they are making changes already. Previously, school leaders denied problems with governance, blaming some district concerns on misunderstandings.

Vanguard’s two campuses serve more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 9 percent of its students qualify for special education.

The nonprofit Ability Connection Colorado opened the school in 2007. The organization, which provides education and programs for people with special needs, is led by CEO Judy Ham, who also serves as the board president of the school.

Since it opened, the school has paid the nonprofit for administrative work in human resources, risk management and nutrition and financial services.

District officials have repeatedly said that it is a conflict of interest for Ham to vote on or sign contracts between the nonprofit and the school. The district was also concerned that the contract with Ability Connection Colorado didn’t clearly list the services it was to provide to the school and wasn’t awarded through a competitive process.

One former Vanguard teacher, Audrey Monaco, whose position was cut in December, explained that staff have repeatedly complained to their school board about Ability Connection’s services.

“Every person has a story about human resources,” Monaco said.

She and other employees have complained about unpaid benefits, dropped insurance, and missing documents. Monaco said that in the four years she worked at Vanguard, she had to provide her teaching license to the same Human Resource employee three times.

“I was like, where are you losing my confidential information?” Monaco said. “This was pretty upsetting to me.”

Monaco said she didn’t understand why the non-profit kept getting the contract when services didn’t measure up. However, one of the employees of Abilities Connection was Ham’s daughter, she said. District documents also reference concerns with Ham’s daughter, an employee of Ability Connection.

The Aurora district’s proposed conditions would require Vanguard to evaluate its service provider and to include a review of fair market values and survey responses from the Vanguard staff and families.

Another concern the district lists in its recommendation is about gaps in how the school tracks its finances. An audit, for example, showed money transfers to Ability Connection for about $465,000 that were not approved by the board and did not include itemized receipts. School officials later told the district the money was used for things like furniture, kitchen equipment and background checks, but did not provide documentation.

Munn noted that these issues could eventually affect how students are educated, though he doesn’t think they have yet.

“We think there are some organizational things around, just to be blunt, some adult issues that need to be fixed so that student needs can continue to be met,” Munn said.

Monaco believes the district’s conditions are fair and necessary so that the school can continue to operate.

But others, like Chad Smith, a parent of a 9-year-old student at the school, fear the district is using an “iron fist” to change the school.

“I believe Vanguard East and West was born from ACCO [Ability Connection] and I’m disappointed that you are demanding them to no longer have any influence or some kind of access to what their creation becomes,” Smith said. “I fear a new board will not be Vanguard Classical East or West, it will be whatever this new board chooses it to be. I hope it is still a school that I will want my daughter in.”

District board members seemed skeptical about renewing Vanguard’s charter after having had this same conversation about a year ago. Munn and Brandon Eyre, the district’s attorney who helps write charter contracts, said that because the district had less information a year ago about the problems at Vanguard, the conditions imposed last year weren’t enough to really address the problems, even if the school had complied.

As an example, district officials had asked the school to hire a new executive director. But district staff say they found that the current executive director “was hand-chosen by Judy Ham and presented to the Vanguard Board as the sole option for approval” — evidence that conditions meant to empower the board “failed.”

Aurora board member Dan Jorgensen noted that he has heard only good things about the school’s education and programs.

Board members asked if the district felt confident Vanguard would meet the conditions this time around. District staff explained that if the school doesn’t comply with the conditions by the deadlines set in the contract, the board could close the school at that time, without waiting until the end of the proposed two-year contract.

Counselor Comeback

Years after laying them off, Newark brings back attendance workers to track down absent students

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Superintendent Roger León (center) with more than 40 new attendance counselors the district has hired.

A new school-attendance squad is on the job in Newark, ready to phone families and track down truant students.

More than 40 new attendance counselors and truancy officers made their official debut this week — part of a campaign by Superintendent Roger León to curb rampant absenteeism in the district. The linchpin of León’s approach is the rehiring of the attendance workers, who were laid off nearly six years ago amid questions about their effectiveness.

The employees — some new and some returning — will help craft school attendance plans, contact families, and bring truant students back to class with the help of Newark police officers.

They have their work cut out for them: Nearly a quarter of students have already missed about two weeks or more of school since September, according to district officials.

In his drive to boost attendance, León also launched a back-to-school campaign last fall and eliminated some early-dismissal days when students tend to skip class. At a school board meeting Tuesday, León said those efforts have resulted in fewer “chronically absent” students who miss 10 percent or more of school days for any reason. So far this school year, 23 percent of students are chronically absent, down from 30.5 percent during the same period the previous school year, he said.

“Right now, we’re in a really, really good place,” León told the board. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go.”

A long to-do list awaits the attendance workers, who will earn between $53,000 and $95,531, according to a district job posting. They will create daily attendance reports for schools, call or visit families of absent students, and make sure students who are frequently out of school start showing up on time.

They will also be tasked with enforcing the state’s truancy laws, which authorize attendance officers to arrest “habitually truant” students and allow their parents or guardians to be fined. Newark’s attendance counselors will gather evidence for potential legal actions, deliver legal notices to students’ homes, and appear in court “when required,” according to the job posting.

The district is also establishing a new “truancy task force” to track down truant students, as required by state law. The task force will include both district employees and police officers who will patrol the streets searching for truants to transport back to school.

The teams will be “going up and down every one of our corridors and getting kids in school,” León said Tuesday, adding that they will eventually be provided buses.

Criminal-justice reform advocates across the country have criticized state laws, like New Jersey’s, which criminalize truancy. As a result of such laws, parents can face fines or even jail time and students can be put on probation or removed from their homes. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that truant students who faced legal action were more likely to earn lower grades and drop out of school than truant students who did not face those sanctions.

While truancy laws may be on the books, districts have discretion in how they enforce them.

Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, has studied absenteeism in Newark and said he did not know how the district’s new attendance workers would carry out the law. But he cautioned against “punitive strategies,” such as issuing court summonses or suspending frequently absent students, which can temporarily boost attendance but eventually drive students further away from school.

“Once the school is viewed as the enemy, as somebody who is out to get the student, it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild a trusting relationship,” he said. “And what we see time and again is that a trusting relationship between a school and a family or student is a critical component to building a school-wide attendance strategy that works.”

Superintendent León declined to be interviewed after Tuesday’s board meeting, saying he would answer written questions. As of Wednesday evening, he had not responded to those questions.

At the meeting, he did not rule out the possibility of the district’s truancy officers making arrests. But he said the police officers’ job was not to arrest truant students, only to protect the attendance workers.

“I need to make sure that any staff members that we hire are safe,” he said.

In 2013, then-Superintendent Cami Anderson laid off all 46 of the district’s attendance counselors. She attributed the decision to budget constraints and limited evidence that the counselors had improved attendance.

The district shifted the counselors’ responsibilities to school-based teams that included administrators, social workers, and teachers. Critics said the district was expecting schools to do more with less, and the Newark Teachers Union — which had represented the attendance counselors — fought the layoffs in court. An administrative law judge sided with the union, but then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe later overturned the decision.

León, who became superintendent in July, promised to promptly restore the attendance counselors. However, his plans were delayed by a legal requirement that the district first offer the new jobs to the laid-off counselors, some of whom had moved out of state. By the beginning of February, all the positions had been filled and, on Friday, León held a roughly 90-minute meeting with the new attendance team.

To create lasting attendance gains, experts advise schools to consider every aspect of what they do — their discipline policies, the emotional support they provide students, the quality of teaching, and the relationship between staffers and families. Simply outsourcing attendance to designated employees will not work, they warn.

Superintendent León appears to agree. In an interview last year, he said he expects all school employees to join in the work of improving attendance.

“The last thing that needs to happen is for people to walk away saying, ‘Oh, attendance is going to be solved because now we have the attendance counselors,’” León said. “No, everyone has to worry about attendance.”