The Newark advisory board’s irrational vote on charter schools
Read this op-ed as it originally appeared in The Star-Ledger
The Newark school system once served more than twice as many kids as it does today, but it still has almost as many schools. So it’s full of empty space, with more than 8,000 vacant seats at last count. That’s an expensive albatross.
The city is also home to a thriving charter school movement that is bursting at the seams. The best charter organizations, such as North Star and Team Academies, are showing remarkable results and have waiting lists that stretch into the thousands. They want to expand.
The rational policy here is obvious: Allow the charter schools to rent some of the empty space in conventional schools, or even entire schools. They could serve more kids and the district could earn rental income.
As a bonus, the leases would give the district leverage to insist that the charter schools make their best effort to enroll low-performing students and to share data and promising practices with the conventional schools.
But this is Newark, where politics often veer into the absurd. So the Newark school board, after a raucous meeting on Monday, voted against a series of leases — including those sought by North Star and Team.
And now Cami Anderson, the superintendent, has vetoed the board’s vote and signed the leases. At least someone in power is looking after the interests of the kids in Newark first.
Despite that ending, this is not a happy story by any stretch. Yes, Anderson has the power to get her way in the end, because Newark schools are controlled by the state and the board’s powers are advisory. But this irrational vote shows that the board is determined to stir opposition at every turn.
The board chair, Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, is simply unable to articulate clear reasons why the majority opposed the leases. She seems to regard the charter movement as an alien invasion, saying the board is responsible only for those students who choose conventional schools.
What she is clear about is that she wants local control back, treating Anderson’s veto an assault on democratic rule.
But it’s not that simple. Anderson’s reforms have support in town. What about the families of the 8,000 kids enrolled in charters, or the even larger number on waiting lists? What about Mayor Cory Booker, who got many more votes than any board member and supports Anderson’s veto? What about the families that are lined up to enroll in the alternative schools that Anderson established last year?
There is more to this story than the wishes of a backward board elected in a vote with only 7 percent turnout, dominated by the political boss Steve Adubato, a make-believe school reformer, and Ras Baraka, whose team is reflexively opposed to everything Anderson does.
Yes, Anderson has a political problem on her hands. But when she makes room for good charter schools, she is giving families in Newark exactly what they are demanding. Our hope is she stays the course.