Scapegoating Newark’s Parents and Charter Schools is Not the Answer

Muhammed Akil | January 29, 2016 | Opinion
Decades of mismanagement and sub-par education spurred state takeover and community’s push for alternative education options

Muhammed Akil
As we prepare for the return of Newark public schools to local control, it is of crucial import that Newark clearly evaluates and anticipates the challenges of being fully responsible for the educational futures of over 50,000 public school students, while also managing a billion-dollar school budget.

In 1994, the state Department of Education issued a comprehensive investigation of the Newark School District. The report outlined widespread mismanagement and instructional inadequacies that failed generations of Newarkers – and eventually served as an anchor for the state’s takeover a year later.

It should also be noted that a full decade before this formal investigation, the state documented deep concerns in the district’s management and provided multiple warnings of a possible takeover going back to 1984. In the summary findings on their investigation, some striking concerns were brought to light.

The report stated: “The Newark School District has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children enrolled in the public schools. The numerous deficiencies found throughout the district are a result of the Newark Board of Education’s failure to meet its governance responsibilities and the Executive Superintendent’s failure to lead and manage effectively.”

It is ripe with additional condemning language, with phrases such as “little oversight,” “20 years behind the times.” “Hazardous,” “rat infested,” and “conflicts of interest” are littered throughout the document. At one point it even boldly asserts, “…evidence shows that the longer children remain in the Newark public schools, the less likely they are to succeed academically.”

This investigative document should serve Newark as a valuable, factual reminder to why the NPS fell into state control in the first place.

You would think having a clear blueprint that defines our challenges and outlines what actually caused the takeover would be an asset. That this report could be used as a way to ensure all our children – district, charter, and magnet – have a stronger education system in the future. Unfortunately, we have not heard much about these findings over the last 20 years.

Instead, anti-charter voices, like Newark Teacher Union President John Abeigon, have projected an illogical and revisionist narrative on the school district’s problems, waging an ideological war against public charter schools. Ignored are the actual well-documented failures and challenges we face.

People like Abeigon have self-servingly chosen a path to protect the status quo by blaming and scapegoating Newark parents who simply demand quality public schools options.

Newark had significant issues before public charter schools were even available. While there have been some positive movement over the years, systemic poor management and an inability to address our past has put our children at continued risk.

The solution does not rest in disparaging the desires of Newark parents, blaming the public charter schools that do more with less, or demanding more tax dollars.

This tone and approach ends up pitting one group of parents against the other and serves only as a diversionary tactic or smokescreen for the district’s true chronic failures. If we continue down this road, we set up all public school children – district, charter, and magnet – as potential casualties in what has become an unneeded ideological war.

Scapegoating one group, specifically parents who just want the best education options for their kids, does not help address the real challenges we face when we gain local control.

Suggesting easy fixes of blame provides false hope, does not represent the true will of Newarkers, and will not address the substantive problems outlined in the 1994 takeover report.

The reason 42 percent of all families in Newark chose charter schools last year in the Newark enrollment system is because the city boasts some of the highest-quality charter schools in the country and because some public school parents are thoroughly dissatisfied with the quality of education that some NPS schools have been providing for a very long time.

This should be a moment in our history to finally to break from the status quo and build needed change for Newark parents and children. Rather than pitting parents against each other, it is time for those in decision-making positions to face NPS’s realities head on and start an honest conversation about the school district’s true problems.

Some work has been accomplished, but there is still a great deal that needs to be addressed. But to be clear, public charters schools are not to blame. At the time of the scathing 1994 report, charter schools did not even exist.

Parents, by the thousands, are already driving the debate and demanding more public school options. And Newark’s children deserve solutions, not scapegoats. We must take a critical look at the issues defined in 1994 and ask ourselves if our city’s 20th-century model of education policy actually serves the needs of students in the 21st century.