Private-school choice could help controversial One Newark plan: Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
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on January 15, 2015

By Erik Telford


Speakers and supporters listen as clergy led a rally against the One Newark Plan and Superintendent Cami Anderson on the steps of City Hall in Newark last summer


Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson may have the most difficult job of any education executive in America, and she recently faced a barrage of criticism from state legislators over her reorganization plan for the city’s school district, known as “One Newark.” The plan, which gives parents in the perpetually failing school district greater control than ever over which school their children are assigned to, has had a difficult rollout, and much of the local frustration with Anderson in understandable. However, One Newark is a substantial step in the right direction, and can be improved by further devolving power to parents and making a full slate of educational options available to families in the troubled district.

One Newark’s central tenet is universal enrollment, which allows parents to rank each of Newark’s public and charter schools and enter their children in a lottery for their selection. This is a significant improvement on the status quo; previously, families had been bound by their ZIP code to a school arbitrarily assigned by the government, and if a public school on the other side of town better served their child’s needs, there was nothing a parent could do about it. Open enrollment levels the playing field by giving each child equal opportunity to attend the public school that best suits him or her.

Thus far, the harshest criticism of One Newark has focused on the execution of the plan and not on its merits. Despite the first-year bugs in the lottery system, open enrollment is doing a greater good for a greater number of Newark families by making more and better choices available. However, as parents have found, there are too few seats in the city’s adequately performing schools to accommodate each child who deserves better than the status quo.

The solution — and the logical next step for Anderson and One Newark — is a private school choice program similar to those used by Milwaukee and Cleveland, school districts of comparable sizes to Newark’s that have faced similar challenges. Extending the reasoning behind open enrollment — allowing children assigned to failing schools a fair chance to enroll in a better one — to North Jersey’s strong and diverse slate of private schooling options would give even greater power to Newark parents, and would ensure that no child, regardless of their parents’ income or how the ping-pong balls of the lottery treat them, is consigned to a perennially failing school.

Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, the first modern school choice program for low-income families, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and is helping about 25,000 disadvantaged children. Families at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for scholarships averaging over $6,000, funded by their own education tax dollars and applicable to the cost of education at any accredited school, whether the public school in their neighborhood, an out-of-zone school, a charter school, or a private school.

The Milwaukee program has measurably improved children’s academic performance, something most attempts to reform Newark’s schools have failed to do. High school students participating in the program score higher in reading, math, and science than similarly disadvantaged students outside the program, and also graduate at an 18 percent higher rate. An increased graduation rate is associated with a number of positive social trends, including lower crime rates and gang membership.

Cleveland’s similarly-structured program offers scholarships to more than 7,000 children living at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. This program has simultaneously made options available to parents and improved traditional public schools by reducing class sizes and giving teachers more time to tend to the needs of individual students, suggesting that an addition of private school choice to One Newark would bring collateral benefits to the city’s struggling public schools.

Opponents of private school choice — largely the same teachers’ unions that opposed Gov. Christie’s successful statewide education reforms — often argue that allowing parents’ tax dollars to follow their children reduces the funding available to underperforming schools, but Newark is proof that funding don’t correlate with school performance. As an Abbott district, Newark’s funding has increased for the past 28 years, and the district already spends about $8,000 more per student than nearby Chatham, which consistently ranks as one of the best districts in the state.

New Jersey has thrown the kitchen sink at Newark’s schools with minimal success. Nearly three decades of Abbott-mandated funding hikes have bought nothing, and state bureaucrats have done little better than the local bureaucrats they seized control from 20 years ago. It’s time to expand the city’s open enrollment to allow parents to use their own tax dollars to secure the best possible education for their children.

Erik Telford is senior vice president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity in Alexandria, Va.


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