Local Control Returns to Newark (Or is it There Already?)

Late yesterday the nine--member panel called the Newark Education Success Board issued  a report, “Pathway to Local Control,"  that recommends that the state, after 21 years, return local control to the Newark School Board beginning in the 2017-2018 school year. The non-binding recommendation is contingent on the district meeting all five metrics of  the state accountability rubric called QSAC (it currently has Operations, Fiscal Management, and Personnel, but not  Governance and Instruction and Programming) as well as approval by the State Board of Education.

(Here’s coverage from the Star-Ledger and the Wall Street Journal. Here's the press release from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's office, which includes a link to the Executive Summary.)

The return of local control is politically necessary for Mayor Baraka, who chose to take heat from the Newark Teachers Union and aligned lobbyists for working with state-appointed superintendent Chris Cerf.  But what will it mean for Newark families when the School Board (either mayor-appointed or elected, depending on voter preference) has the power to pick its own superintendent and oversee all functions, including a billion dollar a year school budget? What will it mean if current trends continue and more and more parents shift from the traditional school sector to the charter school sector?

Probably not very much. And that's not a bad thing.

To wit: the NESB report includes an excellent timeline of Newark Public Schools (Appendix A), which details the travails of N.J.’s largest school district,  currently serving about 34,000 children in traditional schools and 14,000 children in the city’s robust charter school sector. Politicians and lobbyists who claim that NPS went downhill after the state takeover in 1995 ignore history. A 1993 report concluded that “the Newark Public School system has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children enrolled” and  the district struggles “under the weight of poor performance on the part of many students, neglected buildings, charges of mismanagement, nepotism, cronyism and rampant political interference.” (See my take here.)

Derrell Bradford quotes from the report in his excellent analysis up today on Eduwonk:
“Children in Newark public schools are victimized by school and district leaders who force them to endure degrading school environments that virtually ensure academic failure.”
”The first world is that of the children who are subjected to substandard facilities and poorly equipped classrooms and libraries…The second world is that of the board of education of Newark. The board’s world is comprised of the finer things in life, such as travel to Honolulu, St. Thomas and San Francisco, dinners at fine restaurants, new cars and flowers.”
I've never met anyone who has disputed these grim circumstances, which prevailed for the better part of a century.

Bradford points out that local control has, in its most salient sense, already returned to Newark. Finally, parents have public options outside of the traditional sector and they are exercising those options vigorously. Charter school enrollment has tripled over the last five years. During the district’s most recent universal enrollment period 42% of K-12 Newark families chose a charter school as their first choice. Bradford writes,

In 2015, 50 percent of the city’s K-8 applicants (via the city’s common enrollment process) chose North Star Academy, part of the Uncommon Schools network, as their preferred choice. Overall, charters made up seven of the eight most popular choices. And with 15,000 students in Newark charter schools—all of which enrolled during an extended period of state, not local, control—it’s tough to argue Newark parents aren’t, in large measure, in control already—and with more power than they ever had under an elected board. If there is something more democratic than this, I’m not sure what it is.
One other note: the NESB panel justifies return to local control not only because of recent improvements but also because of  N.J.'s adoption of the Common Core and aligned assessments (PARCC). There's no longer wiggle room (or not much, anyway) on standards and accountability. In other words, this loss of local control enables local control. Just sayin'.

A few highlights from the report:

On the necessity of  collaboration between the traditional and charter sector:
Students and families are best served when the different sectors communicate and share resources to ensure that all schools in Newark are delivering the highest quality education for all children. Core to achieving this vision is the ability of these sectors to acknowledge a shared responsibility to ensure equitable access to high quality education in Newark, and develop a shared commitment to work together in a productive manner to address barriers to equity.
The NPS Board of Education and the New Jersey Department of Education, through its Office of Charter Schools, should advocate for and actively support a NPS/Charter/Faith-Based Working Group to develop a shared vision for high quality education in the City of Newark that includes equitable access for all children in the City.

In fact, the traditional sector should emulate some charter practices:
The Working Group would develop recommendations to help influence innovations in policy and practice such as: pursue providing options for high performing district schools to operate with levels of autonomy comparable to that of high performing charter and independent schools,
Charter school enrollment has tripled in the past five years. Parents are demonstrating that they value more quality school options. For the 2015- 16 school year, 75% of kindergarten families preferred a school that was not their closest district school and 42% of families selected a charter school as their first choice. Over 60% of students got into their 1st choice school. 86% got into one of their top 3 choices. 
On fiscal matters:
While the 2015-2016 deficit of $75.6 million was closed and a balanced budget is in place for 2016- 17, the anticipated shortfall for 2017-18 is in excess of $70 million. Clear, two-way, on-going communications with parents, families and community about the state of the budget, the strategies that will be used to address it, and the principles that decisions about equitable resource allocation will be based on, will also be critical to promoting increased transparency, deepening trust, and faith in the district’s willingness and capacity to garner and allocate resources on behalf of the best interests of students

The Newark Teachers Union should agree to continue the merit pay provision agreed to in the last contract negotiated with Cami Anderson:
A nation-leading CBA provided, among other things, that raises were not automatic with the passage of time, but were only awarded to teachers who were evaluated as effective. The teachers’ contract allows NPS to reward teachers who are rated “highly effective” with bonuses, ranging from $5,000 to $12,500 a year.
Chronic student absenteeism, defined as missing 18 or more school days per year, is way too high:
 22% of students in K-8 schools and 49% of students in high schools were identified as chronically absent in the 2014-2015 school year.

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