A Lesson from Newark: Charter School Parents No Longer Political Weaklings

As the Star-Ledger notes in today's editorial, last week's Newark School Advisory Board election was a game-changer, with historically sparse turn-outs -- typically about 7% of eligible voters -- elevated by 3,000 voices who comprise "a new army of charter parents." This new enthusiasm for voting  can be attributed to two elements. First, most residents are aware that local school district control will return to the city in the next year or two and the Board will no longer be "advisory" but appropriate full governance from the State. Second, a new organization called Parent Coalition for Excellent Education (PC2E) successfully mobilized voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities.

From the Ledger:
This is big. Charter schools educate roughly 1 in 3 children in Newark, with many more families banging on the doors to get in. The largest chains – TEAM and North Star -- solidly outperform the traditional schools, giving even the most disadvantaged kids a clear shot at college. 
But while the charters have been strong in the classroom, they have been weaklings on the political front, until now. In last year's election, with about 15,000 students in charters, only 183 charter parents cast votes, according to a study by PC2E.
Newark charter parents, demure for so many years, are no longer political weaklings but newly-empowered.

Among the 12 candidates, the two top vote-getters were Kim Gaddy and Tave Padilla, both well-known as school choice supporters. The third winner, Leah Owens, slipped in as the third candidate on this Unity Slate. Ironically Owens, a leader of the militant arm of the Newark Teachers Union, owes her victory to the coattails of two contenders who are diametrically opposed to her platform of charter moratoria and an end to school reform in Newark.

(See here as former Star-Ledger journalist and current blogger Bob Braun [who never lived in Newark and sent his kids to elite private schools] pens a dirge for the decline of  Newark parent resistance to the smart educational leadership of Superintendent Chris Cerf,  as well as Mayor Ras Baraka's occasional acknowledgement that parent demand will continue to drive the expansion of  Newark's charter school sector. Braun, besotten by betrayal,  inaccurately disses Owens for going over to the dark side and aiding in the dissolution of teacher union clout in Newark elections. Hey, Owens is a politician. She did what she had to in order to win. For Braun, Owens is partially redeemed by NJ Communities United's endorsement of her candidacy. That's  the group funded by, Braun writes, the "powerful public employee union, CWA." CWA declined to endorse either Gaddy or Padilla.)

The Star-Ledger editorial continues,
And as it stands today, charters are succeeding with much less money than the district schools. How about cutting waste in the traditional system, rather than kneecapping the charters? 
Tuesday's election should give pause to Baraka, and to politicians like Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), who has pushed for a freeze as well.
That's a nice thought, if not particularly sustained by reality. Rice, a favorite of NTU and NJEA, has relentlessly fought against school reform in Newark. Once he claimed the backing of parents. Last week's election shows that he's lost that constituency. Does he care more about representing Newark parents or does he care more about access to teacher unions' deep pockets for his next senatorial campaign? I'm not holding my breath.\

Meanwhile, PCE2's voter empowerment drives are moving to Camden, under the direction of Bryan Morton, a lifelong Camden resident, founder of the North Camden Little League, and new Executive Director of PCE2-Camden. Status quo adherents should take notice.