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Op-Ed: Level the Playing Field for Newark Public Schools

Kids don’t care if they attend a traditional public school or a charter -- as long as they can get a great education

dominique lee

Whether we like to admit it or not, Newark’s public schools are separate and unequal. On one side, you have district schools operating under a set of rules and fiscal realities. On the other, public charters play by a different playbook. This is no slight to my charter partners, nor anti-charter talking points. They want a more equitable system where they are serving neighborhood children and all schools are resourced adequately. They have taken steps in this direction -- locating their schools where there is the greatest need, opening more seats to students with special needs, collaborating with district schools to share best practices. But the fact remains; education in Newark is a tale of two cities.

Five years ago, BRICK (Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids) partnered with the Newark Public Schools to help turn around Avon Avenue and subsequently Peshine Avenue schools, low-performing schools in the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods serving grades Pre-K 3 – 8.

To a child, it does not matter whether they attend a public traditional or charter school. What they and their parents want are excellent teachers, academic and social emotional supports, technology in the classroom, exposure to the arts, extracurricular programs that extend learning, and a world-class facility that matches the importance of this great undertaking.

Charters are better positioned for these things because they are unencumbered by the district’s structural budget gaps, hiring rules that make it impossible to attract the best and brightest talent, decision-making power taken away from building principals, and funding flowing directly to the central office instead of classrooms and kids. Not every child in Newark will get a seat in a good charter school, so what do we do to level the playing field for all of the city’s schools?

As former classroom teachers in the Newark Public Schools, we know that our children can succeed, as they have proven when they are given a solid chance. BRICK schools have had consistent growth since our inception: BRICK Avon has steadily shown an increase on the NJASK ELA and NJASK Math every year since BRICK's launch in 2010. Math proficiency rates have more then doubled -- going from 18 percent in 2010 pre-BRICK to 43 percent proficiency in 2014, and our early childhood program has better-prepared students. This past year NJASK results had our third graders scoring 45 percent proficient in ELA and 63 percent proficient in math. These numbers are higher then ever before and outperform all of our neighboring district schools. However, our children are far from achieving their highest potential.

The district’s inability to solve its funding challenges has made it extremely hard to provide the quality education our students deserve. Budget cuts at the school level, year after year, have only made things worse. The district’s cumbersome hiring process, beset by seniority protections (LIFO), and the forced-placements of teachers, creates too few vacancies for schools to hire new talent. These issues seriously impede what district schools are able to do to give their children a chance at success. Directing more dollars into schools -- away from the central office -- and creating more-effective staffing policies are two fundamental steps needed to create a level playing field between Newark’s district and charter schools.

Recently, the Star Ledger reported that a Newark public charter school receives $17,000 per student from the state and city, while a traditional district school gets about $18,000 per student, a small difference that seems to favor district schools. However, the charter school principal controls significantly more money to hire teachers, fund innovations in the classroom, or order supplies -- $14,000 -- compared to the $8,000 per child the traditional district public-school principal controls.

This fact alone should spark public outcry: a public charter school has enough funding to pay for extra resources such as two teachers in the classroom while a traditional public school’s $6,000, that does not hit their budget, is going to pay for a downtown bureaucracy.

Without autonomy and control over budgeting and staffing, traditional public school leaders will find it increasingly more difficult to come up with creative solutions to meet the growing needs of their students and fulfill the promise of Abbott v. Burke.

Newark Public Schools are at a very challenging but inspiring moment in time. As we prepare to regain local control, I submit that we must answer two guiding questions: How do traditional public schools mimic successful public charter schools and ensure exceptional principals like Erskine Glover, Charity Haygood, Kathy Duke-Jackson, and Chaleeta Barnes have access to at least 70 percent of the state’s per-pupil allocation like their charter peers? How do we give good school leaders and their teams the ability to choose the appropriate staff to meet the needs of their students and not be forced to hire teachers from an excess pool?

Our new superintendent, Chris Cerf, will have to make tough decisions to create parity for Newark public schools. The answer is not to put roadblocks up against parent choice; instead, we must focus our efforts on giving traditional public schools the tools to meet the needs of their students by improving the system. If we want a city of schools where it matters not whether a child wins the luck of a draw and ends up in a good charter school, then we need to level the playing field so that every child has access to a great neighborhood school. We have a decision to make as a community: Do we want to have children going to school in a separate and unequal environment? Or do we want a thriving system of excellent schools where the needs of children trump the needs of a broken bureaucracy? Let the first step toward local control be a collective commitment to forge ahead for the betterment of our children and ensure financial and human capital equity in all of our schools.

Dominique D. Lee is the founder and chief executive officer of Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids (BRICK).

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