Newark's Misdirected Civil Rights Complaint

Both NJ Spotlight and the Star-Ledger have stories today on the federal investigation of a civil rights complaint filed by Newark advocates regarding the closure of four neighborhood schools. These closures are part of Superintendent Cami Anderson's One Newark plan. The complaint alleges, according to NJ Spotlight, “that the reorganization [i.e., One Newark] that either closes or turns over to charters a quarter of the city’s schools is targeting African-American neighborhoods. It said that while the Newark district as a whole is about 50 percent African-American in enrollment, those affected by the reorganization are 86 percent African-American.”

The advocates are right, but their target is wrong. Cami Anderson is not the problem. The problem is much bigger than one school superintendent.

The defenders of Newark's current school infrastructure are mainly represented by a group called PULSE, or Parents Unified for Local School Education. They are particularly opposed to Anderson's closure of four schools  -- Hawthorne Avenue, Bragaw Avenue, Madison Avenue, and Alexander Street – while allowing Newark’s most successful charter organizations to expand. They also oppose the "universal enrollment plan" which is also part of One Newark. This new enrollment structure allows parents and guardians of students to rank schools in order of preference, whether they be charter or traditional.

PULSE believes that Cami Anderson is deliberately closing schools that serve African-American students and that these students are disproportionately affected. From the complaint: “All four schools affected had an African-American enrollment rate of over 77%. In comparison, none of the schools had higher than a 1.4% White enrollment rate. In fact, two of the four schools had absolutely no White students.

Let's step back a bit. Newark schools primarily serve African-American students.  According to the NJ Department of Education School Performance Reports, most of Newark’s schools have very small proportions of white and Asian students. It's true that Hawthorne Avenue and Alexander are all black and Hispanic; Bragaw has .7% white students and Madison Elementary has .2% white students (93% black, 6.4% Asian, .5% Hispanic). But that’s true for many of Newark’s public and charter schools. The only exceptions I could find was Ann St. School, at 49% white, East Side High at 30% white, and Arts High School, at 7.9% white.

Paul Tractenberg’s paper, “New Jersey’s Apartheid and Intensely Segregated Urban Schools,” points to New Jersey’s appalling segregation of minority students in poor urban districts. His prime example is Essex County, which contains Newark:
The first two categories of Essex County school districts present the nub of the problem. Co-existing in a single, compact county are a dozen virtually all white and Asian suburban districts with tiny poverty levels and four urban districts with virtually no white or Asian students and staggeringly high poverty levels. Surely if New Jersey’s twin constitutional commands of equalizing educational opportunities and assuring racial balance wherever feasible are to have any real-world meaning, this is a county where the state must act.
The state, of course, has never acted, at least in terms of addressing racial imbalances.

In other words, the problem of intensely-segregated schools isn’t a Newark problem generated by Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan. It’s a state-wide problem that remains unaddressed despite decades of awareness..

More from the complaint: “For a raw number comparison, only five White students were directly affected by school closures in 2012-13, but 1,094 African-American students were affected." But that's not a meaningful ratio when Newark itself qualifies, according to Tractenberg, as an "apartheid" school district. 

I'm sure that PULSE members have valid reasons for disliking Anderson's One Newark plan.  But by basing this civil rights complaint on four school closures in a district with declining enrollment and a poor academic track record, they're giving Anderson way too much power. She's not  personally responsible for Newark's long history of intense segregation. We all are.

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