In Newark, booming charter schools flex new political muscle | Moran

By Tom Moran | Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on April 25, 2016

The politics around charter schools in Newark will never be the same after Tuesday's election, which saw a new army of charter parents turn out for the first time.

The number of votes cast on Tuesday was roughly double the total only two years ago, an encouraging sign as Newark prepares to resume local control within a few years.

That came after a new political organization in town, the PC2E Action Fund, joined with the schools to register a whopping 3,000 charter parents, enough to swing an election in Newark. The top winner on Tuesday was Kim Gaddy, their candidate.

This is big. Charter schools educate roughly 1 in 3 children in Newark, with many more families banging on the doors to get in. The largest chains – TEAM and North Star -- solidly outperform the traditional schools, giving even the most disadvantaged kids a clear shot at college.

But while the charters have been strong in the classroom, they have been weaklings on the political front, until now. In last year's election, with about 15,000 students in charters, only 183 charter parents cast votes, according to a study by PC2E.

Meanwhile, the rapid expansion of charters has sparked a political backlash. The teachers' union, a potent political force in town, hates the charters because most are not unionized. Orthodox liberals believe private managers have no place in the public school system. And conspiracy theorists see a hidden plot by Wall Street philanthropists to somehow enrich themselves.

A more rational concern comes from Mayor Ras Baraka, who worries that the charters are draining too much money from traditional schools. Baraka's answer is to freeze the expansion of charters, which typically grow by adding a grade each year as their students advance.

The state should provide more help to ease this transition, as it did with a one-shot appropriation this year. But Baraka's freeze is exactly the wrong answer. It would force many kids back into struggling traditional schools as they advance.

And as it stands today, charters are succeeding with much less money than the district schools. How about cutting waste in the traditional system, rather than kneecapping the charters?

Tuesday's election should give pause to Baraka, and to politicians like Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), who has pushed for a freeze as well.

Gaddy, whose child happens to attend a traditional school, says this election could tone down the acrimony and bring new focus to improving all schools.

"I'm hoping this election shows them we are here to stay," she says.

No doubt. With this vote, the charters have become the newest voting bloc in town. And for ambitious Newark families, that is nothing but good news.

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