How to Level the Playing Field Between Newark's Charters and Traditionals? Start with Empowering Principals and Teachers

Dominique D. Lee, the founder and chief executive officer of Newark’s BRICK (Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids), has a great editorial in today’s NJ Spotlight that highlights the fiscal and regulatory advantages of charter schools.

Nothing  here about corrupt tithings from hedge-fund managers or sweet deals with real estate moguls or greedy siphoning from traditional school district coffers.

Just the benefits inherent in  charter schools' freedom to sidestep the drains of bureaucracies, hiring rules, and seniority protections that burden Newark Public Schools’ ability to focus resources on kids and attract talented teachers.

For Newark parents and children, Lee explains,  “it does not matter whether they attend a public traditional or charter school. What they and their parents want are excellent teachers, academic and social emotional supports, technology in the classroom, exposure to the arts, extracurricular programs that extend learning, and a world-class facility that matches the importance of this great undertaking.”

But they won’t find that combination of essential supports within a system that is encumbered by “structural budget gaps, hiring rules that make it impossible to attract the best and brightest talent, decision-making power taken away from building principals, and funding flowing directly to the central office instead of classrooms and kids.”

In fact, while traditional Newark schools receive about $18K per pupil,  about a thousand dollars more than BRICK or the city’s other charter schools receive per student, “the charter school principal controls significantly more money to hire teachers, fund innovations in the classroom, or order supplies -- $14,000 -- compared to the $8,000 per child the traditional district public-school principal controls.

Writes Lee,
This fact alone should spark public outcry: a public charter school has enough funding to pay for extra resources such as two teachers in the classroom while a traditional public school’s $6,000, that does not hit their budget, is going to pay for a downtown bureaucracy.
Now BRICK isn’t a traditional charter school but a teacher-led turnaround. Back in 2010, Lee and five other Newark teachers, all Teach for America alumni, developed a plan for a student-centered, teacher-run school. At the time, the New York Times reported that “Dominique D. Lee grew disgusted with a system that produced ninth graders who could not name the seven continents or the governor of their state. He started wondering: What if I were in charge?”

Over time, NPS turned over Avon Avenue School and, later, and Peshine Avenue School to BRICK. Since the turnaround, students there – the same students who attended Avon and Peshine under traditional district management –outperform counterparts in traditional district schools in both math and language arts. Lee attributes student success to both teacher ownership and principals’ freedom from archaic staffing rules.

Next year 40% of Newark Public School students will attend charter schools; more would if there were seats to be had. So how do you create an equitable system when about half the schools are burdened by traditional rules and budget gaps while the other half isn’t?

 That, says Lee, is new Superintendent Chris Cerf’s primary challenge as he leads the transition from state to local control. He concludes,
The answer is not to put roadblocks up against parent choice; instead, we must focus our efforts on giving traditional public schools the tools to meet the needs of their students by improving the system. If we want a city of schools where it matters not whether a child wins the luck of a draw and ends up in a good charter school, then we need to level the playing field so that every child has access to a great neighborhood school. We have a decision to make as a community: Do we want to have children going to school in a separate and unequal environment? Or do we want a thriving system of excellent schools where the needs of children trump the needs of a broken bureaucracy? Let the first step toward local control be a collective commitment to forge ahead for the betterment of our children and ensure financial and human capital equity in all of our schools.

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