Advocates Blast Superintendent’s Call to Close Four Newark Charter Schools as ‘Unfair’ and ’Alarming’

Superintendent Roger León argued that charter schools drain money from district and fail to serve fair share of students with special needs
Credit: Chalkbeat
Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Roger León at a school board meeting

Charter school advocates are firing back at Superintendent Roger León after he called for the closure of four Newark charter schools last month and warn that his actions could reignite district-charter clashes.

Two advocacy groups sent strongly worded missives to the state Monday in response to a series of letters León wrote in December urging the state to shutter four charter schools: M.E.T.S., People’s Prep, Roseville Community, and University Heights.

“The ideology and factual misstatements that permeate those letters threaten years worth of work to create harmony between district and charter schools in Newark,” wrote Kyle Rosenkrans, executive director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes cooperation between Newark’s traditional and charter schools.

The New Jersey Charter Schools Association, which represents the majority of the state’s 88 charter schools, also submitted comments to the state Monday.

“I write this letter in response to the irresponsible and unfair attacks on public charter schools in Newark,” wrote the group’s president and CEO, Harry Lee, who called León’s arguments “factually inaccurate” and “alarming.”

Draining money from district

The public dispute comes just weeks after León and charter leaders agreed to continue using a common application system — a partnership that Rosenkrans helped negotiate.

But León’s letters to state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet revealed that he remains deeply skeptical of the schools. León argued that publicly funded, privately managed charter schools drain money from the district and fail to serve their fair share of students with special needs.

Well over a third of Newark’s public school students are enrolled in charters. The district sends about 30% of its revenue to charter schools, which receive the public funding attached to every student they enroll.

León urged Repollet to shut down the four schools, which are undergoing a mandatory state review, and to deny “any and all” applications for new charter schools or the renewal of existing charter schools unless they serve “a specific educational need.”

Rosenkrans, a former fundraiser for the KIPP New Jersey charter network who launched the foundation last year, has sought to mediate between charters and the district’s new leadership. (In 2018, the state ended its takeover of Newark schools and restored authority to the local school board, which chose León as superintendent.) Rosenkrans now appears to be taking a more combative approach in light of León’s letters.

‘Vehement disagreement’ with León

In his message to Repollet, Rosenkrans asserts his “vehement disagreement” with León and pokes holes in León’s case against charter schools. Among Rosenkrans’ counter-arguments: Traditional and charter schools have made academic gains as the charter sector expanded; the district has the ability to assign more students with special needs to charter schools if it chooses; and the district still has budget surpluses even with its payments to charter schools.

“The district has wildly overstated its fiscal circumstances, including the impact of charter schools on its budget,” he wrote, citing a $13 million surplus that the state found last year in Newark’s budget.

Lee made similar points in his letter. He argued that charter schools have taken steps to enroll more students with disabilities and are entitled to the public funding they receive when students choose charters over traditional schools.

Lee also asked the state to disregard León’s letters because they were submitted after a 30-day deadline and were not endorsed by the school board. However, a state spokesperson previously said the commissioner would review “all relevant records” when deciding whether to allow the four schools to continue operating. A decision is expected by Feb. 1.

A district spokesperson declined to comment on the responses to León’s letters.