Halting charter growth isn't the answer | Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
on October 11, 2015

Teacher Shanel Sommers looks over the work of one of her third-graders at a KIPP charter school in Newark called Thrive Academy.

 

The debate over charter schools may be ready to explode again in Newark. The mayor's chief education advisor has called for a halt to all charter growth, the union is demonstrating next week, and credible rumors are spreading that KIPP – one of the top performing charter chains – is about to anchor a new expansion.

Cover your ears, because this is going to be all about politics, when it should be about what's best for Newark kids. Their parents are banging on the gates to get into top charters like KIPP and North Star Academy, and to say no to any further expansion would lock them out for good.

This is the most promising change we've seen in the city over the last decade. Yes, the growth of charters has raised some practical problems. The district is the biggest employer in Newark, and has to reduce its own spending and endure layoffs as it loses students. There are legitimate concerns that some charters avoid the hardest-to-educate kids.

But others are educating a population as disadvantaged as the district's, and doing a much better job of it. Parents lined up on charter waiting lists, thousands deep, are speaking loud and clear: They want these high-performing schools, and they want more of them. The only thing standing in the way is the need for new space.

That's where the mayor's office comes in. Even without local control of Newark schools, and a charter moratorium bill in the state legislature that's gone nowhere, Ras Baraka's administration could use all sorts of red tape to block charter construction in the city. That would gain him political support from the union, but it wouldn't be good for kids.

Give him this much: He is right to be upset that the district is not keeping pace with improvement in charter schools. We currently spend more per student in the district than in charters, which are public schools, too. But charter principals have more freedom to target their resources into the classroom, and hire the best staff.

We need to work to level that playing field. And we need to be vigilant, to make sure there aren't inequities in charter enrollment.

The best charters, like KIPP, have worked hard to recruit the neediest kids, and set up schools in the poorest neighborhoods. According to the latest chapter of a huge, multi-year study by an independent organization called Mathematica, KIPP students nationwide outperformed the district even when the charter served more disadvantaged kids.

Students in KIPP elementary, middle and high schools made significantly bigger academic gains than they would have in the district -- gains that ultimately persisted as the charter network exploded in size, it found. The study controlled for student demographics and background.

And KIPP and North Star, another top charter, have shown they can replicate this kind of success by taking over district schools. Each took over the management of kindergarten through fourth grade in failing elementary schools last year, at the request of former Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, and the improvements were even better than they'd hoped for.

After a single year, kindergarteners at Alexander Street School, which was taken over by North Star, were performing far above the national average in reading and math -- better than 90 percent of students in the nation. Fourth graders who had once been reading at a first grade level were now reading at a third grade level.

At Bragaw Avenue Elementary School, where KIPP was in charge, kids were brought up to grade level in less than a year, on average. For perspective, less than one percent of schools in America are getting their students caught up at that rate.

It's not hard to see why North Star and KIPP were the top choices of Newark parents under universal enrollment, out of all the schools in the city. But only a small fraction of their kids could get in. And if political forces succeed in blocking charters from adding any new seats, the rest never will.

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