Newark and Glen Ridge: Different Routes, Same Road

Separated by just several miles, disparate districts differ on terms of charter debate but share concerns over future of their schools

It was an illustrative pairing in the charter school debate in New Jersey: two local forums held two days and just five miles apart — but in settings that couldn’t be more different.

The first took place in Newark on a sweltering Saturday morning, inside a community center in a city at odds with itself over whether charter schools — with all their innovation and intimacy — are the answer to its embattled public schools.

The other was Monday night in Glen Ridge, a leafy suburb at the breaking point in paying for public education it boasts as among the best in the state. Its leaders now wonder whether its schools would be better off as charters, freed from costly controls — including maybe their own.

Neither came to firm conclusions, but the juxtaposition reflected the ever-growing luster — and controversy — of charter schools as a potential player in urban and suburban districts alike.

It’s a discussion that Gov. Chris Christie and his education commissioner, Bret Schundler, would surely say they encourage as strong supporters of charter schools, having made big pushes in the opening months of their tenures.

Others said it may speak to deeper concerns. When asked for common traits with Newark, Glen Ridge board president Elisabeth Ginsburg came up with one word: “Desperation?”

Glen Ridge Examines All Options

“Maybe we have the commonality in that we’re both looking behind all the doors for the right one to enter,” she said. “It may not be the same one for all us, but the state needs to know we will leave no stone unturned, and if they’re not going to help us, we’ll have to help ourselves.”

The discussion was a provocative one in Glen Ridge, where the board decided to concentrate its mid-summer retreat on weighing any and all options for surviving the financial squeeze affecting many suburban districts.

Long one of the state’s inauspicious leaders in property taxes, the district lost literally all of its state aid for next year in the budget approved by Christie and the legislature. On top of new statewide 2 percent caps on property taxes, that left the board looking at charter conversion as one possible solution.

The board invited staff from the state Department of Education to explain the plusses and minuses of converting to charter schools, a process never done in New Jersey for a single school, let alone a district of four schools and 2,000 students.

And it quickly became apparent that the process could have some unintended consequences for Glen Ridge, as the board heard details on how state mandates and regulations on charter schools are largely no different than those on public schools.

The one exception is that they would not be beholden to the local district, control that the local board seemed unready to give up.

“The local levy would be transferred to schools where basically there would be no local control,” Ginsburg said.

State officials said it came up once before in another community weighing charter conversion of one if its schools. “But they never pursued it because they didn’t want to lose control of the school,” said Jacqueline Gamba, a program specialist with the state department.

For much of the meeting, an unspoken topic in the room was whether a charter school would operate without collective bargaining, no small point in a district now negotiating its next teachers contract under the new caps. It was also no coincidence that the vast majority of the small audience comprised Glen Ridge teachers, as well as representatives from the statewide New Jersey Education Association.

But when the topic was eventually raised, the state officials said that while charter schools start without unions, a handful have seen their teachers organize. And they pointed out any conversion under law would also require approval of 51 percent of the faculty.

In Newark, Conversion or Tradition?

It was a far cry from the meeting two days earlier in Newark, where a new advocacy group in the state, Democrats for Education Reform, hosted a panel of local leaders to talk about the state’s application for federal Race to the Top funding.

The application is full of technicalities and arcane details on how teachers are paid and evaluated, how students are tested, and which models will be used to turn around which low-performing schools.

But spurring the most emotion was its emphasis on charter school expansion, something that Newark knows well, with more than a dozen charter schools in place, serving 6,000 students.

Some of the leaders of those schools were in attendance, praising the opportunities afforded by charters, a few of which are the top performing schools in the city.

But also in the audience were some community leaders who see funds flowing into charter schools and the headlines accorded them, while the local neighborhood schools continue to struggle and now face layoffs in the hundreds.

“If they truly want to educate the children in the neighborhoods, why not go into the neighborhood schools?” said Wilhemina Holder, a long-time parent activist.

She said she was struck by a specific benefit of charter schools: autonomy from some of the local rules, such as length of school day and greater power for principals.

“Why can’t we do that in the traditional schools?” she said.

And that was maybe where a common note was struck with Glen Ridge, where by the end of the retreat the focus had shifted from charter conversion and a whole new series of questions were being asked.

“In the end, we’re hoping the state starts listening to us,” said John Mucciolo, Glen Ridge’s superintendent. “That’s the conversation we hope we’re starting with this.”