Baraka decries latest charter school spat as 'organized campaign' to divide parents

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on January 07, 2016

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka meets with the members of The Star-Ledger editorial board and members from NJ Advance Media

 

NEWARK – Recent controversy over a letter to the state Department of Education has Mayor Ras Baraka decrying what he is calling an organized campaign to divide public and charter school parents in the city.

The Dec. 17 letter to Education Commissioner David Hespe urges the state to reject applications expand enrollment by charter networks including KIPP (TEAM Academy), Uncommon Schools (North Star Academy) and the Robert Treat Academy. He argues that their growth would unfairly siphon state aid from traditional public schools already struggling with a significant lack of resources.

"These expansions, if approved, will result in a dramatic increase of charter school payments, negatively impacting the NPS budget over the next five years, impairing the ability of NPS to provide all students with a high quality, thorough and efficient education," he wrote.

What followed in the weeks since has highlighted a rift between parents, officials and other stakeholders on how to manage the growth of charters in Newark and the influence of their supporters.

After Baraka's letter began gaining traction on social media and in education reform circles, he began drawing criticism that it was a deliberately hidden strike against non-traditional schools and their supporters.

"Here it is, the end of the year, we've just reached 105 homicides and what he's focused on is creating a moratorium against charter schools. That to me is the issue," said Matt Frankel, a spokesman for the Newark-based Parent Coalition for Excellent Education (PC2E).

On Wednesday, Baraka issued a strong response via a statement, calling Frankel's criticism "part of an organized campaign to inflame charter parents and public school parents against each other at a time when responsible public school and charter school leaders are working together to find common ground..."

Later, he doubled down by posting a video blog on the city's YouTube page, accusing some advocates of distorting his words and actively trying to promote division to further their own pursuits.

"The interesting thing is that there are forces in our city, some who are here, and some who are not here, who are interested in putting parents against one another," he said.

"There are incredible charter schools in Newark and there are incredible public schools in Newark and one should not be pit against the other. Unfortunately there are people who want to see that happen, and are using politics to see that happen."

On Thursday, seven members of the Municipal Council sent their own letter to Hespe urging him not to curb the growth of charters.

"Parents in Newark should have the option of sending their children to the school of their choice," they said.

The group, which includes the entire council, save for Council President Mildred Crump and South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James, also passed a resolution in May denouncing a three-year moratorium on the schools proposed by state Assembly members Mila Jasey (D-Essex and Morris) and Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex).

Council members also expressed surprise that Baraka would call for limiting charter school growth, when his administration just recently approved the expansion of a charter school. In October, the planning board – whose members were all appointed by the mayor – approved a new school building for North Star Academy in vacant parking lot of the former Star Ledger building.

Department of Education Deputy Press Secretary David Saenz said all applications for expansion in Newark were still being weighed, but that all comments from the public and officials alike would be considered before any decision was rendered.

The reaction to Baraka's letter, however, reflects an increasingly mobilized bloc of charter parents and supporters. Following the Planning Board vote in October, Baraka issued a public response after charter groups spread a photo of him posing with KIPP students holding a sign supporting the network's expansion.

Mashea Ashton, CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund, said she believed the mayor was sincere in his desire to give all students access to a quality education regardless of venue.

"Where I'd love the conversation to go around this issue is how do we do that," she said, noting that many charter networks such as KIPP and Uncommon Schools had reported high demand from parents resulting in long waiting lists.

"To have elected officials say the response is no we're not going to respond to that demand, I think its unfortunate."

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