Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dear Anti-Choice Lobbyists: Get Out of the Way of Parents

I’ve followed discourse about Newark’s public education system for years and, suddenly, there’s a shift. While education politics and policy is typically overheated in New Jersey’s largest school district – decades of corruption and nepotism, extreme poverty, failing schools – there’s a new momentum thrumming through a parent-driven crusade for public school options.

A new group called Hands Off Our Future Collective is drawing more and more families to meetings with legislators and school board members. Eric Dawson of “The Newark Report,” a Newark native, is unabashedly exposing Mayor Ras Baraka’s duplicitous campaign tactics against school choice. A universal enrollment system that simplifies choice among traditional and charter public schools methodically quantifies parent desire for alternatives. Superintendent Chris Cerf has successfully smoothed some ragged edges from Cami Anderson’s tenure and restored leadership.

Perhaps this shift from complacency towards empowerment drives recent strident attacks against Newark’s charter school sector. A good example is a recent blogpost from Mark Weber, aka Jersey Jazzman. Weber is responding to an article in The74 by Richard Whitmire, who profiles Alexander St. School, a chronically-failing elementary school that was turned over to Uncommon Schools’ North Star Academy last year. Whitmire reports that in the start of the 2014 school year, when North Star took over, 4th graders were reading at a 1st-grade level  and couldn’t complete simple counting exercised. But, “based on the tough new PARCC tests, in just a single year Uncommon was able to erase years of education malpractice.”

Whitmire writes,
Not only did the reforms of traditional Newark Public Schools produce some real benefits, but the relatively small portion of the gift invested in Newark charter schools paid off big. Real big.
This statement, of course, is an irritant to anti-charter lobbyists and induces a kind of allergic reaction. So bee-stung Weber breaks out in a rash and flails at Whitmire, using data from Leonie Haimson (who helped launch anti-choice organizations like Network for Public Schools and Parents Across America yet chose to send her own children to private schools) and Rutgers professor Bruce Baker (Weber’s dissertation advisor).

Facts are important, especially as Newark parents’ sense of urgency for effective schools rises. So let’s examine the facts, particularly in regards to Newark’s North Star Academy, Weber’s primary target.

North Star is part of the Uncommon Schools’ charter network and widely regarded as one of the best public schools in New Jersey. The D.O.E. reports that 96% of North Star students are minority and 83.7% are economically-disadvantaged. Seventy-one percent of North Star students pass an A.P. exam. In 2014, North Star students outperformed white students by 29 points on the reading and math portions of the SATs, a gain of over 150 points from 2009, effectively reversing the achievement gap. One hundred percent of North Star’s high school graduates have been accepted to four-year colleges. The most popular school among parents during Newark’s latest universal enrollment cycle was North Star.

Hence, Weber and his anti-choice clique break out in hives. He claims that North Star’s attrition rate is higher than Newark’s traditional schools. He claims that North Star discriminates against special education students and English Language Learners (ELL). He claims that North Star students aren’t poor enough (free lunch vs. reduced lunch).

Again, the facts. North Star’s attrition rates are lower than traditional district schools. North Star has a higher free lunch rate than 20% of Newark district schools. Overall, North Star serves more poor children than the district as a whole (84% for North Star vs. 81% for the district). ELL students, in fact, are not uniformly dispersed through Newark schools or neighborhoods. (Neither are special education students, who represent 8% of North Star's enrollment.) Fourteen of 64 traditional schools serve no ELL students. The median ELL rate for Newark district schools is just 3%.

Weber writes,” “There is no evidence the successes of North Star can be significantly scaled up.”

Actually, North Star started in 1997 with 90 students. It now serves 4,000 students, with long waiting lists.

Weber says that the “voices” of families who oppose charter school expansion “are repeatedly marginalized or flat-out ignored.” Really? By whom? The Newark Teachers Union? Assembly members Patrick Diegnan and Mila Jasey, who are sponsoring (with NJEA's help) a charter school moratorium bill? Anti-choice lobbyists who gathered in Montclair to hold a charter school “forum” attended by Mayor Baraka’s chief education advisor? Mayor Baraka himself, who in December sent a letter to Ed. Comm. David Hespe demanding a ban on charter school expansion?

Weber says, “Newark parents should not have to settle for ‘voting with their feet’; like suburban parents, they should be able to vote with their vote.”

But they do: just look at the preponderance of charter school enthusiasm in Newark’s universal enrollment system.

He writes “Why would we think the children in ‘no excuses’ charters are just like children who are in other schools?”

How are they different? Do their parents not support their academic success? Do they not have the same hopes and dreams as children in wealthier suburban districts?

Advice to Weber et.al.: take some Benedryl and get out of the way of Newark parents.



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