Newark’s charter schools are succeeding. So, why isn’t the city’s superintendent supporting them?

Posted Jan 31, 2020

By Paul O’Neill

A thriving charter sector that serves roughly a third of the 55,000 students there is now a crucial part of an upswing in scores and parent satisfaction. But in December, Superintendent Roger León sent an open letter to the state education commissioner attacking charter schools, Paul O'Neill says. We should be working together, he says.

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Almost six years ago, I co- founded a non-profit organization called the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools to help families who want to exercise the same sorts of school choice opportunities for their kids with disabilities as are available to other children. Since most charter schools are independent public schools that operate outside of district control, we found that there were few coordinated efforts in the charter sector to ensure access, equity and strong academic outcomes for kids with disabilities. Across the country charter schools, authorizers and other stakeholders are communicating and collaborating, and sharing best practices, but there is still a lot more collaboration to do.

More and more, the center is finding that our work takes us beyond charter, into places where common challenges are impacting children across all public school options, including in Newark. Traditional public schools, charter schools and other sorts of alternative schools here are all part of the mix and can be strengthened by mutual supports and collaboration. We see no benefit to drawing lines that we won’t cross or building walls between charter schools and districts. But not everyone seems to view public education from this perspective. Especially lately.

Political rhetoric has ramped up as we begin a big election year. Too often we encounter an antagonistic divide between proponents and opponents of charter schools. Advocates for the traditional public school structure often call for limits to charters, or at least to for-profit charter schools (a confusing term; charters are public schools and a small percentage of them are managed by for-profit organizations that provide services to a school by contract).

Charter school advocates routinely disparage districts and teachers unions. That seems counterproductive and bad for the children and families who public schools are meant to serve. We should be building bridges, not walls. Education is hard; serving the specialized needs of all students, including those with moderate to severe disabilities, is among the most challenging work that any of us can take on. Good ideas and promising practices can take root anyplace and we should share all the inspiration and best practices that we collectively possess.

One recent example of unnecessary friction between districts and charter schools is playing out in Newark, a city that has struggled for generations with low student achievement. A thriving charter sector that serves roughly a third of the 55,000 students there is now a crucial part of an upswing in scores and parent satisfaction. Opportunities for synergies abound. Many of the charter schools even take part in a common enrollment system called “Newark Enrolls,” which allows students and their families to access a range of schooling options through a single, unified enrollment process that, among other benefits, prioritizes options for students with disabilities.

But in December, Newark Public Schools’ Superintendent Roger León sent an open letter to the New Jersey education commissioner, who serves as the sole authorizer of charter schools in the state, attacking charter schools in Newark and urging the commissioner to deny the renewal applications of the four charter schools currently up for renewal in Newark. The grievances he vents in his letter largely repeat the same sort of anti-charter rhetoric that has fueled similar battles nationwide since the first charters opened their doors in Minnesota more than 25 years ago: We don’t want you. We don’t need you. Go away.

But the reality is that numerous studies have shown that the academic performance of students in Newark charter schools is strong. So strong, in fact, that a Boston University/Manhattan Institute study released this month found that having students enroll in charter schools in Newark’s common enrollment system have led to large improvements in math and reading scores. The study also found that “attending a Newark charter school has a larger positive effect than 80% of other educational interventions that have been recently studied using an experimental design.” It is hard to see how children and families would benefit by removing charter schools as an option in Newark and other places where they have taken root and are thriving, and easy to imagine ways to lean into the sorts of collaboration already in evidence.

The center urges the public education community to see serving students with disabilities as a shared priority and to explore ways to collaborate. This can include joint working groups to drill down on challenging problems, professional development offerings that are open to professionals from all types of schools, open sharing of curricula and more. In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost wisely said, “Before I built a wall I’d want to know what I was walling out or walling in…” In this instance, we know that isolation leads to worse things for children who deserve all that we can give them. Let’s build bridges instead.

Paul O’Neill is co-founder and senior fellow at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

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