The State of New Jersey took over Newark’s public schools in 1995. Fifteen years later, Newark schools were still struggling. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame, donated $100 million to the district in 2010. The Education Commissioner, Chris Cerf, had formerly served as deputy chancellor of New York’s schools. Prior to that he was president of Edison Schools Inc., a private for-profit management company that failed. He hired Cami Anderson, former head of Teach for America and New York’s District 79 at risk schools. What happened next is alarming. It could lead to something constructive.
Anderson announced a One Newark plan in 2013 to take over many public schools and lease some to charter schools. About 30% of schools were already charters. TEAM (KIPP) and North Star were the major charter players in this experiment. In order to reduce the charter student selection bias, she initiated a universal enrollment system to match parents priorities for schools with available spaces. Transportation issues and other problems meeting student needs caused a community uproar. Cerf resigned. Anderson resigned.
The lessons learned from this troubling experiment are thoughtful. We may consider some of them for Florida.
Early Lessons Learned from Newark’s Experience with Charter Schools was written by a pro charter research and consulting firm. The most interesting concern expressed, for me, was the need for a new governance structure in which both charter and traditional schools co-exist. In order for that to happen, state and district policies must be aligned so that districts have oversight authority and charters are truly accountable to authorizers while maintain their flexibility. A city wide perspective for planning is included which must consider: the impact of charters on public schools, areas of greatest need, quality of teachers, meeting the needs of students with disabilities, and recognizing the impact of school policy on the city’s financial and employment health.
Some of the following recommendations have been implemented and others are being considered:
- Common enrollment system: Public and charters use one system for school selection with a priority for students in need of additional support eg. IEPs or free lunch. Public and charter schools need a MOU for common discipline, retention, and promotion procedures.
- Common ‘yard stick’ for evaluating quality: All schools report student demographics, attendance rates, college readiness rates, performance and growth scores.
- Slow charter growth and redirect growth to areas of highest need. Charter proposals would require stronger performance standards; charters would no be allowed to expand one grade at a time.
- Ensure a highly effective teaching force: Last in first out law should be eliminated; performance based salary should replace rigid schedules; award merit based bonuses; supplements for positions in challenging schools and subjects difficult to fill; evaluations include student outcomes
- Encourage efficient use of public school buildings. Improved leases to charters’
- Turn around of low performing schools.
- Restrict growth of charter schools in areas of greatest need.
Designing a governing structure that would preserve the ability of charters to experiment and, at the same time, be adequately supervised is a major challenge. Working with a city-wide planning board to consider which types of charters are needed and where they are needed would reduce redundancy and improve cost effectiveness. In Florida, some of the other recommendations are already in place especially those relating to the teaching force. Some experiments with a form common enrollment are being considered. Small steps have been taken to improve charter proposals. Perhaps the failures of charters have become sufficiently recognized that it may now be possible to develop collaborative models to preserve charters that supplement, rather than compete with traditional public schools.