Superintendent targets charter schools in Newark

Kids at Newark’s Roseville Community Charter School worked on their math skills, oblivious to the controversy swirling outside their doors that threatens the future of this, and other charter schools, which now enroll about a third of the city’s kids. Roseville is one of the four charter schools Superintendent Roger Leon has recommended the state not renew, in what many are seeing as the reigniting of Newark’s charter school wars.

“The district’s position is that, upon review of all of the information as we have had them, that we don’t believe that those charter schools should have their applications renewed,” said Leon.

Leon cites a number of issues – including long-standing complaints about charters siphoning funds from the public schools budget and their not enrolling their share of ESL and special needs students – as reasons for not renewing the charters.

It was just a few years ago that students and teachers took to the streets to demonstrate against the expansion of charters and other reforms proposed under several state-appointed superintendents. Once the state returned schools to local control, temperatures cooled somewhat, and surveys show that Newark voters support charters as an important part of the educational mix.

Harry Lee, president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, says there’s a good reason for that.

“The idea that charter schools are not serving our most vulnerable students is just false and this is a system that Newark Public Schools actually administer. They’re the ones who run the algorithm and provide the matches to charter schools, so you see that the number of students with disabilities, the number of English language learners, and the number of lower income kids are actually increasing in Newark charters over time based upon this city-wide enrollment system,” Lee said.

At Roseville, principal and executive director Dionne Ledford, who admits that her predecessor had some administrative issues that have since been dealt with – mostly by replacing her – says she has never heard from the superintendent directly about his concerns.

“It was more disappointing than anything. Disappointing because there was some information that wasn’t factual but it was also disappointing because we should be partners in educating the children of this community and that’s all we’re really trying to do. So when you read a letter like that, you wonder did the person behind the letter have a full understanding of what the impact of a letter like that would be and what it would mean to the children of this community?” said Ledford.

“We will be able to look into time – because I believe history is important – to see in fact, at what point in time was all of this rivalry between types of schools and having people create a discourse and then sit back and allow the residents of the city of Newark to have an internal argument against everything except that which was extremely important, that every school needs to be better,” Leon said.

“What I get from this letter is a district that I think is realizing that there are some concerns within its own enterprise. And those concerns stemming from their ability to develop a structurally balanced budget, one that can support their organization, not only in the current fiscal year, but in future years as well,” said Rashon Hasan.

Hasan, who served as chair of the public school’s Board of Education before joining Roseville, says Roseville’s modest $6 million budget is just a drop in the public schools nearly billion dollar budget

But John Abeigon of the Newark Teachers Union says with recent studies showing some district schools outperforming some charters, residents should wonder what they need the charters for?

“There’s always a relationship between humans and parasites. There are good parasites that are good for the body and are healthy for nature and that’s why they exist. There are other parasites with which we can never coexist. Corporate charter schools is one of those parasites,” said Abeigon. “We did fine without them [charter schools]. We will continue to do – and will probably do better – once they’re gone. And the state taxpayers will thank us for it.”

The state will rule on the renewal of the four charters by Feb. 1.

Both sides in the disagreement say they want the focus to be on the children. But, as is often the case with discussions about education policy, the kids are the first to be affected and the last to be consulted.