war of words

‘It’s enough now’: Mayor Baraka calls on state to halt Newark’s charter-school expansion

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Mayor Ras Baraka wants to hit the brakes on Newark’s charter-school sector, saying Thursday that its rapid growth could “suck the life out of traditional schools.”

The proliferation of the privately operated but publicly funded schools has contributed to gaping holes in the district’s budget, forcing school closures and staff reductions. Today, about 16,000 Newark students — or a third of the total — attend charter schools.

“It’s enough now,” Baraka said during an interview at City Hall, where he rekindled a charged debate about the proper size of the city’s charter sector. Arguing that charters should not “expand arbitrarily, aggressively, without any consideration for the traditional public schools,” he called on state officials to hit pause.

“Whatever they have approved — that’s it,” said Baraka, a Democrat who is running for re-election in May. “They shouldn’t go anymore until this is thought out.”

The number of Newark students in charter schools quadrupled over the past decade under former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is an avid charter proponent. Thanks to future expansions that Christie officials approved before leaving office, Newark’s charter sector could serve more than 40 percent of city students within five years. (Only seven districts across the country had 40 percent or more of their students in charter schools last year.)

But, in recent months, the climate for charters has changed dramatically.

Christie has been replaced by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who proposed a “time out” for charter expansions during his campaign. Christie’s handpicked superintendent for Newark has left and a new one will be chosen by the city’s elected school board — which includes some outspoken charter skeptics. And now Baraka is calling on the state — which must sign off on any new charters — to halt their expansion.

He has made similar appeals before, which sparked outrage among charter supporters.

In 2015, he called KIPP New Jersey — one of Newark’s largest and top-performing charter operators — “highly irresponsible” for planning to open several new schools and enroll thousands of additional students. Shortly after, he asked then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe to deny KIPP’s expansion request, along with those of several other charter operators. (Hespe approved the plans.)

Newark Public Schools loses 90 percent of the funding attached to any student who opts into a charter school. This year, the district will transfer about a quarter of its budget — roughly $237 million — to charter schools. At the same time, new students have been enrolling in district schools even as state funding barely budged for several years.

That combination of lost revenue to charters, additional students, and flat funding has left the school system with $70 million budget shortfalls in recent years, forcing the district to shrink its workforce and reduce student services.

If state funding remains flat and charters “just grow, grow, grow,” Baraka said Thursday, “it will suck the life out of traditional schools — and we can’t have that.” (Murphy has proposed increasing state aid to Newark schools by 5 percent this year, but state budget negotiations are still ongoing.)

Baraka may be alarmed about the spread of charters — but he also recognizes that they are deeply popular with many of his constituents. Last year, about half of families applying to kindergarten listed charter schools as their top choice.

He has often said that he’s responsible for all Newark children — regardless of what type of school they attend — and just last month he gathered dozens of principals from district, charter, and private schools to talk about shared priorities. On Thursday, he said charters are a fact of life in Newark — whether he likes it or not.

“We can’t, like, burn the schools down — people’s kids are in there,” he said. “So we have to make sure they’re successful. And we’re all in this city, so we have to play in the sandbox together.”

He has also been willing to form political alliances with the charter sector. For the third year in a row, he has joined the city’s charter leaders and a North Ward councilman in backing a single slate of candidates in the school-board elections.

“The mayor’s not stupid,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “Charter-school people vote.”

On Wednesday, the union endorsed Baraka in his re-election bid. The NTU, along with New Jersey’s main teachers union, have called for a statewide moratorium on new charter schools and expansions of existing ones.

State education department spokesman Michael Yaple would not say whether the agency is considering a freeze on charter approvals. But he said the department is planning a “comprehensive review” of the state’s charter law, and pointed to recent comments by Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, who said he would not “put aside” applications for new charters.

KIPP New Jersey, which plans to grow its enrollment from about 4,100 students in Newark to 7,800 over the next few years, did not respond to a request to comment on Baraka’s statements. But in an interview earlier in the week, CEO Ryan Hill said that Baraka had been mostly “even-handed” toward charter schools.

“I think he knows our schools are doing good things for kids,” Hill said, “and those kids are his constituents and he has to be mayor of the whole city.”

silver screen

United Federation of Teachers drops more than $1 million on new ad campaign

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/UFT
In a new ad released by The United Federation of Teachers, a teacher crouches at a student's desk and smiles.

Amid a wave of teacher activism nationwide and major threats to the influence of unions, the United Federation of Teachers is expected to spend more than $1 million on a primetime television and streaming ad featuring local educators.

The 30-second spot hit the airwaves on Jan. 23 and will run through Feb. 1, with an expected audience of 11 million television viewers and 4 million impressions online, according to the union.

Featuring a chorus of singing students, bright classrooms, and a glamour shot of the city, the ad is called “Voice.” A diverse group of teachers declares: “Having a voice makes us strong. And makes our public schools even stronger.” It ends with the message, “The United Federation of Teachers. Public school proud.”

The union, the largest local in the country, typically runs ads this time of year, as the legislative session in Albany heats up and city budget negotiations kick-off. But this time, the campaign launches against the backdrop of an emboldened teaching force across the country, with a teacher strike in Los Angeles and another potentially starting next week in Denver.

UFT is also eager to prove its worth after the recent Janus Supreme Court ruling, which could devastate membership by banning mandatory fees to help pay for collective bargaining. So far, membership has remained strong but the union could face headwinds from organized right-to-work groups and the sheer number of new hires that come into the New York City school system every year.

The ad will run locally during programs including “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Good Morning America,” on networks such as MSNBC and CNN, and on the streaming service Hulu. You can watch the ad here.

'Clarity 2020'

Superintendent León calls on Newarkers to help shape his plan for city’s schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy to improve the district at Central High School on Wednesday.

Newark Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy for transforming the school system at a community forum Wednesday, the first of several meetings where residents will be invited to help shape the plan.

The strategy, dubbed “NPS Clarity 2020,” calls for closer cooperation among schools and between them and the community. The strategy’s premise is that schools must challenge students academically while also attending to their physical and emotional needs.

Over the next few months, officials said, the district will turn the strategy into a detailed, three-year plan with help from families, students, and partner organizations, who will be invited to planning sessions in each of the city’s five wards. The final plan will be released in June.

“How are we going to do this? Everybody in here — all of you,” León said to hundreds of mostly invited guests at Central High School. “There’s a lot of hard work we’re about to do, and we’re not going to be scared about it.”

While Wednesday marked the start of public feedback on the strategy, León has been referencing his plan at meetings for months. Some leaders, including Mayor Ras Baraka and a few board members, have previously urged León to publicly share his plan, along with specific goals he hopes to achieve.

Baraka, who was Central’s principal when León was an assistant superintendent, made a brief appearance at Wednesday’s event to lend his support to León’s vision. He said the two have been working in particular on a plan to get local universities to enroll more Newark Public School graduates.

“I just want people to know that the superintendent and I are on the same page,” said Baraka, who famously clashed with León’s state-appointed predecessor, Cami Anderson. “And it hasn’t been that way for a very long time.”

Baraka is also part of a new advisory committee that will provide input on the plan. The 24-member committee includes teachers, principals, and advocates, along with business, higher-education, and philanthropic leaders.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark residents wrote down challenges and opportunities in the district during Wednesday’s forum.

The district hosted a similar series of public forums in 2016 under Superintendent Christopher Cerf, which led to the district’s current three-year roadmap.

The district has hired a Newark-based consultancy, Creed Strategies, to lead the current planning process. The firm’s founder and president, Lauren Wells, is a former advisor to Baraka and previously helped spearhead a high-profile reform effort in Newark called the Global Village School Zone.

Started in 2010, the program lengthened the school day and added extra support services at seven Central Ward schools, including Central High School. It also brought the schools’ teachers together for joint trainings and made sure their courses were in sync so students could easily progress from the elementary schools to Central. However, Anderson abruptly ended the effort in 2012.

Now, Wells is helping incorporate elements of that program’s approach into León’s strategy. At the forum, Wells described some tenets of the strategy: recognizing and addressing poverty’s effects on students; helping schools work together rather than in isolation; taking advantage of the resources that families and local organizations have to offer schools; and measuring student success on a variety of scales.

“They will be risk-takers, they will be sought-after,” she said. “They will pass assessments — and not just the PARCC, but the bar.”

Attendees were also given a document with an elaborate diagram representing the “Clarity 2020” approach, which district employees received at an August conference where León previewed his plans. The diagram features a dozen “keys to 2020,” such as higher education and social services, and six “game changers,” including alumni and internships, but provides no details beyond those broad headings.

The district has not yet posted the document online or announced dates for the forums in each ward. León declined to be interviewed after the event.

Several attendees said they were energized by Wednesday’s forum, which included small-group brainstorming sessions where participants listed challenges and opportunities in the district.

“You don’t usually have a superintendent that asks questions,” said Nitia Preston, the community engagement specialist at Peshine Avenue School. “He’s asking, ‘What change do you want? What strengths do you have?’ I love that.”