Could this be the new odd couple of Newark school reform? | Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on December 06, 2015

Christopher Cerf (far left), the new superintendent of Newark schools, is teaming up with Mayor Ras Baraka on an education project.

 

There's a new reform project underway in Newark schools, with an unlikely partnership behind it: The superintendent and the mayor.

This was unthinkable only a year ago. The state took over the city's school system in 1995, and most people in Newark regard it as an offense that Trenton still calls the shots 20 years later.

Relations spun out of control during the contentious reign of former Superintendent Cami Anderson, who became a key political target of Mayor Ras Baraka. That blocked any hope of a constructive partnership.

So mark this as a political milestone that will benefit children, with credit to both Baraka and Superintendent Chris Cerf, the former state education commissioner.

This week, they announced their intention to use $12.5 million of the remaining Facebook money donated to Newark to fund a joint initiative, addressing both school quality and poverty, at the same time.

We don't yet know the details, and execution matters. But this plan will center on the South Ward, where the need is greatest.

Cerf wants to give principals more control of their budgets and staff. He also wants to provide more help addressing the impact of poverty, including parent workshops and health clinics. The rest of the money, $2.5 million, will fund a program to prevent dropouts, and try to lure back those who have already left school.

All this is promising. The fight for education reform often cleaves into those who believe improving schools is the key, and those who believe addressing poverty is more important. In reality, both matter. Kids suffer when they're stuck with mediocre teachers and schools, just as they suffer from family instability or poor health care.

Baraka is opposed to the expansion of charter schools, a mistake in our view, given the remarkable success of the charter sector in this city, which educates more than 1 in 4 kids.

But this reform could help the district schools catch up. The autonomy for principals, and the services aimed at addressing poverty are both hallmarks of the successful charter schools. They get less money than the district schools for operating costs, and none at all for capital costs. Yet they outperform the district's schools, in part because more money reaches the classroom.

Newark schools are facing a budget crisis, mostly because state aid has been frozen for years. The expansion of the charter sectors has created a challenge, as well, since state aid moves with the students, forcing the district schools to make do with less.

But the answer is not to choke off the expansion of charter schools, which have proven to be immensely popular among Newark families. The answer is to lift the performance of district schools, borrowing the successful tactics of charter schools whenever possible. With open minds, each sector could strengthen the other.

Our hope is that this Facebook money helps to grease that transition. Cerf and Baraka both deserve credit for moving in that direction.

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