Newark's back in control of its schools. Will it put kids first? | Editorial

Everyone is happy to see Newark finally regain control of its schools, more than 20 years after the state took over. It's a win for democracy and a recognition that kids in this city are making real progress.
 
The district has a much higher graduation rate, and better test scores. It is keeping more of its best teachers, thanks partly to an innovative contract that allows the district to reward them.

And it's getting rid of the worst teachers, bringing 230 tenure charges against underperforming teachers since 2012, most of whom are no longer with the district; in the prior decade, it was fewer than 10.

Yet make no mistake: the return to local control carries risks. The state took over the district because the local leadership was corrupt, and stuffed the schools with patronage hires. Local leaders ran the system for the benefit of the adults, not the kids.
 
As Ross Danis of the nonprofit Newark Trust for Education put it to author Dale Russakoff in 2010, "The Newark schools are like a candy store that's a front for a gambling operation. When a threat materializes, everyone takes his position and sells candy. When it recedes, they go back to gambling."
 
The year the state took over, 1995, was a generation ago; it's not as though this is Newark's destiny. Yet on behalf of kids, we must fire a warning flare.
 
In the last school board election, just 6,000 people in a city of 300,000 showed up to vote. That's how elections get captured by special interests that put adults first, like the teacher's union, or old political machines that round up busloads of pliable voters.

With local control, that has to change. Moving the election from April to November would certainly help. But the main point is that ordinary citizens can't yield the playing field to those with the loudest voices. People need to vote, and be vigilant, and focus on kids.
 
Local officials must honor parents' choices about the best public school option for them, and stop the endless political sniping over whether a school is charter, magnet or traditional. Charter enrollment has tripled in the past five years in this city, and these schools have shown remarkable success.
 
About 31 percent of Newark kids now choose to go to charter schools. So the school board will need to defend that right to chart your own course.
 
Superintendent Chris Cerf deserves huge credit for his management of the toxic politics, steering improvement in the performance of kids while calming the waters by soliciting more community input.

But we're still nowhere near the promised land. Despite the improvements in test scores, the overall percentage of district students testing at or above grade level is still only 31.1 percent in English and 22.6 percent in math.
 
And school board members who have been disempowered for decades are accustomed to the role of critic, not being partners in educating city kids. Now they are going to be in charge of safeguarding the educational future of every child in Newark.
 
Let's hope they have the political courage to focus on that core goal - getting more kids launched successfully through public schools, no matter what their form.

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