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Op-Ed: Dispelling Five ‘Falsehoods’ About Newark’s School System

Despite narrative of failure, former state education chief says Newark has met with success on numerous fronts

chris cerf
Newark schools Superintendent Chris Cerf

Having served as New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education from 2011 to 2014, I have had an inside view into efforts to improve Newark’s struggling school system. Superintendent Cami Anderson’s recent letter goes a long way toward countering the narrative of failure that has taken hold about the Newark school reform effort. Between a recent “New Yorker” piece and Mayor Baraka's astonishingly inaccurate “New York Times” op-ed, however, the blogosphere has reached a verdict that the tumult in Newark signals a lack of success and that more effective “community engagement” might have yielded a better outcome. This assessment of the work in Newark is incorrect in virtually every respect.

Here are five falsehoods worthy of dispelling:

Falsehood 1

The work of the past 3.5 years (Superintendent Anderson’s tenure) has been a failure:

In fact, while we are in the early innings, more has been done to advance the interests of Newark's children over this period than in the three decades that preceded it. And early results are encouraging (laid out in detail in Superintendent Anderson’s letter).

Whether the measure is graduation rates, improved instructional quality, last year’s improvement in the lowest-performing schools targeted for special intervention, a nation-leading new collective-bargaining agreement, the addition of many new high-quality public schools, increased parental choice, or a material increase in the proportion of effective teachers, the arrow is pointed decidedly up in Newark.

To be sure, as is always the case, the evidence of improvement is textured and in some respects uneven. The many positive indicators and trend lines, however, paint a picture of hope and progress that is completely at odds with the pessimism that has made its way into the standard storyline.

Falsehood 2

The 1995 state takeover has failed.

No objective student of history could reach this conclusion. As recounted in Bob Curvin's brilliant recent history (“Inside Newark”), the school system of that time was a cesspool of corruption, patronage, and academic failure -- failure so epidemic and so shameful that to not act would have been a moral crime of omission.

It is certainly true that for decades the state squandered much of the potential for transformational change. But the reasons for this are instructive for those who now insist that “local control” would have yielded better results.

Democratic governors, concerned about alienating their base, all too frequently avoided making hard decisions in the face of pressure from local politicians and activists -- the same ones who had presided over the collapse of the system in the first place, and the same ones who to this day insist on turning serious discussion about positive change for children into a poisonous political circus in which the interests of children are often subordinated to adult concerns.

Nonetheless, even though the state did not fully exploit the opportunity for comprehensive change, the schools and the system itself unquestionably are better today than at the time of the takeover. Most importantly, the takeover created the opportunity for a change-oriented governor (who famously noted that he had received very few votes in Newark) to appoint a transformational superintendent who in fact has been successful in implementing real reform.

Can anyone who has observed the conduct of the reform-resisters over the past two years seriously suggest that the children of Newark would have been better off in their hands? Bear in mind that the same elected officials calling for the end of state control formally passed a resolution calling for a “moratorium” on reform -- this in a city where only about 40 percent of third graders are proficient in reading.

In fact, for all the talk about the “democratic values” implicit in local control, the decibel level of the past few years has been caused less by a legitimate debate about the merits of the work than an internecine fight over which faction would control the local teachers union, a mayor’s race pitting “old” vs. “new” Newark (read: Sharpe revanchists vs. Cory defenders), and the aspirations of what Curvin calls the “resource distributors” -- those who view the power and wealth allocation opportunities of the school system as an end in itself.

If democracy were the real value at issue, how is it that the political elite, not to mention the union, are indifferent to the fact that well over 10,000 parents applied for a placement in a charter school, only be told that there is no space for their child? “Indifferent” actually understates the case: Many of these “leaders” wake up every day seeking, in large ways and small, to undermine the very educational opportunity parents so desperately seek. Where is the “democracy” in that?

And finally, no talk of “local control” would be complete without reference to the oft-ignored reality that the state taxpayers send approximately $800 million a year to Newark public schools, roughly 75 percent of its budget. Equalizing school funding is a critical value, and we should properly reject a system in which children’s educational resources are dependent on the value of tax ratables in the city where they happen to live. That said, you would think that “democratic values” are also relevant to the state taxpayers who foot the bill for Newark’s schools -- that “democracy” entitles them to some voice in how their taxes are spent.

Falsehood 3

Anderson’s “One Newark” plan is a conspiracy to “privatize” public schools by replacing the traditional system with charters.

The precise opposite is the case. Indeed, this frequently repeated canard is the richest irony of all in this irony-rich saga. Let's start with the fact that charter public schools are just as "public" as traditional public schools. In fact, in one respect, they are more so.

Charters are open to all (as opposed to several elite traditional public schools in Newark and many county vocational education schools across the state); they are free; they are accountable to publicly elected authorities; with only trivial exceptions, they are not-for-profit; they select students by random lottery if oversubscribed; and they are subject to the same constitutional and civil-rights scrutiny as any other public entity.

The only material difference between charter and traditional public schools is that the latter are not part of the local school-governance bureaucracy, whether a school board, a mayor or even a state-appointed superintendent. They are instead accountable to an independent public authority, which in New Jersey is the state Department of Education. The DOE, of course, is a governmental entity that works for a democratically elected governor. By the same token, the authority to create charters is conferred by a law passed by the democratically elected state legislature.

Quite aside from the erroneous premise upon which this falsehood rests, it is not even true on its own terms. At the time of Superintendent Anderson's appointment, charter growth was a reality in Newark, with the city on track to having charters serve over 25 percent of its students. (Former Superintendent Marion Bolden, now among the most spirited opponents, seems to suffer from amnesia on this point.)

Superintendent Anderson fiercely advocated for controlling that growth -- pushing to close several unsuccessful charters she had inherited, limiting growth to schools that had shown demonstrable success for children, and preserving the majority of the district as noncharter “traditional" public schools. Under the most optimistic projections, Newark's charter presence will expand to 37 percent, hardly the “privatization” scenario her opponents claim -- even if that phrase has any relevance, which it emphatically does not.

Worse yet, I was personally present with local and national union leadership when they acknowledged that reality and celebrated that much of the money donated by Mark Zuckerberg was going to go into the pockets of their teachers rather than towards a radical expansion of the charter sector -- as had been the case, for example, in New Orleans. This private acknowledgment apparently was forgotten when these same union leaders stood with bullhorns at rallies and school board meetings and in the most crass possible terms accused the district of a privatization scheme. As was so often the case, they knew the truth to be precisely the opposite yet engaged in a calculated campaign of lies intended to inflame passions and serve their own institutional interests.

To be sure, charter growth in Newark is a positive thing. An independent study out of Stanford University confirms that Newark’s charters are dramatically outperforming their traditional school counterparts -- by as much as nine additional months learning-growth per year. A 10,000-child waiting list in a district of 45,000 tells a pretty compelling story in its own right.

It is also the case that Newark is hardly a slouch when it comes to charter expansion -- a point often forgotten by charter advocates, who have been nearly as tough on Superintendent Anderson as the defenders of the status quo. Controlled charter growth to nearly 40 percent would put Newark in the ranks of only a handful of other cities in the country that have embraced the powerful idea that "we are only interested in whether a public school is serving children well and equitably, not the political mechanism that created it." But an effort to "destroy public education?" That's just silly.

Falsehood 4

"One Newark" resulted in closing dozens of schools

Not true. For all the words spilled and trees killed on this point, the underlying reality is rather tame. To the public, the phrase “close schools” means padlocking a building or converting it to a nonpublic school status. Notwithstanding innumerable assertions to the contrary from the reforms’ opponents, “One Newark” resulted in exactly two school closures by this definition. One, Miller, was in such a state of disrepair that it had become dangerously unusable. (Even in that case, the school was moved, rather than shut down altogether.) The other, Dayton, was in a part of the city that has lost most of its residents. (If new development brings them back, undoubtedly a new school would be sited there.)

In all other instances the affected schools either remained open (albeit in some cases under new governance and/or serving different grades) or, in a few cases, were repurposed to serve a pre-K population or other public educational need (e.g., a transfer school for students at high risk of dropping out).

In short, most of these changes were objectively sensible and comparatively minor, routine adjustments driven by facilities issues and changing local demographics. Also contributing to some of these changes is the happy development that Superintendent Anderson secured the addition of 1,000 newly funded pre-K seats for Newark, a cause for celebration not criticism.

If any of this sounds unfamiliar, it would not be surprising. Over and over again, opponents mischaracterized this record and the press breathlessly repeated that mischaracterization as accepted fact.

Falsehood 5

Had there been better “community engagement,” these positive changes could have been achieved in a more harmonious way.

I seriously doubt the accuracy of this statement. No one, starting with Superintendent Anderson, would assert that community engagement efforts were either perfect or ultimately successful, if the definition of success is the avoidance of discord. It is flatly false, however, to suggest that she failed to engage key stakeholders in conversations about the reforms she was proposing. To the contrary, she personally led or participated in well over a hundred such meetings. As importantly, on numerous occasions she modified or abandoned parts of her plan in response to community input. Press and editorial accounts consistently fail to report these facts.

More maddeningly -- and this was a central failure of “The New Yorker” piece -- where is the fairness in putting the blame on those who failed to overcome a campaign of knowing falsehoods and vicious ad hominem attacks? Whatever the inadequacies of the engagement efforts, shouldn’t we focus our criticism first and foremost on those elected officials, union leaders, and activists who were pursuing a strategy of deception and vitriol -- who woke up every day seeking to thwart positive change for kids, seeking to prevent the expansion of schools that were getting outsized success for children, seeking to undermine policies designed to increase equitable access to the district’s better schools, seeking to gum up efforts to empower parents with choice, and seeking to thwart all efforts aimed at fostering an honest conversation about which educators were truly superlative and which were badly underserving children?

Blaming those who failed to completely overcome sabotage rather than the saboteurs themselves feels like a pretty impressive swing and a miss in the coverage.

When it comes to school reform, it is impossible to be consequential without being controversial. Superintendent Anderson, with my and the state’s backing, has chosen to be consequential. The path she charted had its share of flaws and unmet implementation challenges. But they pale in comparison to the successes she has achieved or the positive changes that are well underway. Here’s my own prediction, aimed at the multitudes in the press, especially the author of “The New Yorker” account: Not only has the work in Newark over the past four years not been the failure you so prematurely assumed, it will prove in the long run to have been among most successful large-district transformations in the history of school reform.

What Next?

As Newark looks forward, what would best serve the interests of its students? I have three suggestions.

The first is implicit in the question. A critical threshold step would be for stakeholders to agree to test all ideas against one single measure -- what best advances the education of the city’s children? Needless to say, this “framing” agreement would not yield anything like consensus on what particular policies to pursue. But it would declare as “out of bounds” all arguments that are based on other considerations, including: a) personal political ambitions; b) the retention or acquisition of power or authority for its own sake; c) a commitment to a broken status quo out of an abstract fear of change; d) personality conflicts; and e) other institutional interests, including those of the Newark Teachers Union, when inconsistent with the interests of children. (If anyone tells you that these interests are always perfectly overlapping, offer to sell them a large bridge.)

I believe the parents of Newark’s 45,000 students are more than capable of rising above the din and working to keep the policy discussion within these clear boundaries. This, of course, requires that they be given a forum in which to have a voice, and it continues to be incumbent on both the superintendent and other civic leaders to facilitate that opportunity.

Second, admit error and commit to a “do-over” when it comes to the pitch and tone of the public conversation. Superintendent Anderson has been frank about both strategic and implementation missteps that have arisen over the past several years. They include a rocky start at Barringer (after great progress last year) and initially inadequate acknowledgement of the transportation challenge implicit in “universal enrollment.” To her credit, she has modified the work repeatedly to reflect constructive criticism that has come her way. But she needs to go even further.

Despite the notable lack of civility and outright cruelty that has characterized some of the political discourse, especially at school advisory board meetings, I believe that there are individuals of character on the board who genuinely want a fresh start and are committed to keeping discussions within appropriate bounds. I encourage the superintendent to continue to work with elected officials, including the SAB, as she is already doing behind the scenes and in substantive committee meetings. By the same token, opponents of the reforms need to stop engaging in destructive activities (like encouraging students to boycott school, allowing vicious personal attacks, or distributing knowingly inaccurate copies of the collective-bargaining agreement to foment dissent). The children of Newark are watching and modeling. They deserve better.

Third, the state and Newark’s civic leaders need to design a rational, responsible path to local control. In my judgment, the statutory mechanism for this (known as QSAC) is among the most poorly crafted laws on the books today. Curvin suggests the possibility of a legislative or regulatory alternative, perhaps involving an interim board of mayoral and gubernatorial appointees and certain ex officio members of the city’s civic leadership (e.g., the president of Rutgers-Newark).

Authority would transition from the state gradually over several years, but the process would adhere to an explicit date for a complete transfer to local authorities -- subject of course to all parties meeting agreed-to deadlines and engaging in a responsible and civil transitional process.

In the meantime, the important work of reform that Superintendent Anderson has launched would continue, subject to the kind of revision and modifications that have characterized the work to date. And one hopes, it would continue in an environment of elevated political discourse that would represent a dramatic departure from the past.

Chris Cerf is CEO of Amplify Insight. He served as New Jersey's commissioner of education from 2011 to 2014.

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