Charters aren’t causing Newark’s school budget woes
By Mashea M. Ashton
In recent weeks, Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson has come under fire over a $57 million budget shortfall, projected for the school district next year. The blame should not rest on Anderson. Outdated state policies make it challenging for her to enact real reform that would solve the troubled school district’s systemic problems.
Newark’s charter sector is expected to see an increase of 2,200 students next year. Funding for these students accounts for an estimated $33.6 million, or nearly 60 percent of the shortfall. Characterizing this funding shift — from district schools to public charter schools — as a “loss” is inaccurate. The fact is that allocating funds so they follow students to the educational option of their choice is not only fair, it’s working.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that provide many low-income and working-class parents with the freedom to choose a school that offers an education that best serves their students’ needs, regardless of where they live or their income level. Charters schools are nonselective and accept students through a random lottery. Recent reports by Newark Public Schools and CREDO/Stanford make clear Newark’s charter schools are producing significant achievement gains for students. It’s not surprising that families are demanding more charter schools, with 10,000 students already on wait lists.
Charters should not become the scapegoat for challenges in Newark and other urban districts. Charter schools are a part of a comprehensive solution, not the problem, and money and resources should follow students to the schools that are serving them best.
Instead of demonizing charters, quality-school advocates should pursue reforms in teacher hiring, such as last-in-first-out, or LIFO, and other performance-blind dismissal practices that prevent the district from putting student needs first.
LIFO cost Newark $8.5 million last year, and indirectly cost tens of millions more by tying the district’s hands on hiring and firing decisions. Under current law, when district schools face under-enrollment, they must lay off newer teachers first, regardless of performance. Meanwhile, poor performers with tenure can’t be fired. New Jersey is one of only 11 states to maintain the outdated LIFO policy.
While the new teacher contract spearheaded last year by Anderson, Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie is a strong step in the right direction, there are still improvements to be made.
Another real solution is to close failing and underperforming schools, whether they are charters or district-run.
Charter schools in Newark have gone above and beyond to show what’s possible, including leading the way by building excellent schools and working with the district to develop initiatives such as the Newark Charter School Compact, which promotes transparency and accountability. Several local and national funders, the New Jersey Department of Education charter authorizer and 17 of 22 Newark charter schools have already signed the compact.
In addition, national foundations supporting Newark’s charters have pledged up to $10 million for the next year to support quality growth and district/charter collaborations.
Much of that philanthropic investment will go toward assuring that charter schools are serving Newark’s neediest students. We need to make charter school growth and improvement a priority, giving more high-quality school options to Newark families.
If we’re serious about ensuring excellence for future generations of Newark students, we should not doom them to failing or mediocre schools so that we can avoid making the difficult decisions that come along with budget cuts.
The facts cannot be ignored. Public schools need the support of political leaders and the community to address failed policies. Great schools need access to space and talent. And families need school choices that meet the needs of their children. Our students deserve nothing less.
Mashea M. Ashton is chief executive officer of the Newark Charter School Fund.