Skip to content Skip to footer

What’s Really Behind Education Policy in Newark?

Is a move toward privatization behind the turning over of Newark, New Jersey, public school buildings to charter school companies, investigators are asking.

(Photo: State Farm / Flickr)

Ever since Newark Public Schools (NPS) Superintendent Cami Anderson’s December announcement of her district’s turnaround program, “One Newark,” parents and teachers have faced growing uncertainty about the future of their district. The program proposes to turn Newark Public School buildings over to charter management organizations, combine several high school campuses and implement an open enrollment program to allow for district-wide “choice.”

As NPS prepares to shed a third of its 38,000 students over the next three years, the causes of its decline have been called into question. Unlike many centers of post-industrial depression, the population in Newark actually grew during the last census. The district claims that parents are the force behind its declining enrollment numbers, citing the all-powerful explanation of “choice,” but the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), together with a New Jersey state senator, has offered an alternative interpretation. Rather than market imperatives necessitating layoffs and downsizing, they allege that district policy is shifting larger numbers of students into charter schools, penalizing public schools teachers for the demographics of their students, and, according to a congressional investigation, preparing public assets for sale to for-profit companies.

“We got two different things going on in Newark,” said Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education, in reference to the expansion of charter seats under Superintendent Anderson and the projected enrollment decline in the district. “They are coupled, but its a little unclear how they’re coupled.”

Beginning this year with an attempt to disregard seniority rights in district staffing decisions and a plan to replace 700 existing teachers, a total number reported by NTU president Joseph Del Grosso, the projected enrollment decline has put the district on a three-year downsizing program.

According to Vanessa Rodriguez, NPS chief talent officer, the reduction is the result of public choice. “Families are voting with their feet in search of excellent schools,” she wrote in a statement emailed to Truthout. “When they choose non-NPS options, money follows the student, and with diminished funds, NPS cannot sustain its current number of employees.”

But resource allocation isn’t up to the families of Newark’s school children. NPS has been under state control since 1995, and the power to authorize charters comes directly from Trenton, the state capital, rather than from parents’ referendums. This complicates the story of parental choice that has been told about Newark’s rapidly changing education system. As the Newark Star-Ledger put it in an editorial, declining enrollment “has accelerated lately as Newark families flock to charter schools. [As a result] Anderson, like any rational manager, must close schools and cut jobs to right-size the district.” But this acceleration seems to be more a product of the Christie administration, which channels philanthropy dollars into charter schools, than it does a matter of fair competition. In fact, the charter schools it authorizes end up competing for parents in the very district under state control.

“[Charter schools] are paying teachers 20 to 30 percent more to allocate approximately 20 to 30 percent more time,” says Baker, explaining how longer school years and wrap-around services give privately managed schools a competitive edge. “They’re doing something that kind of just makes sense.” Because turnover is higher in charter schools, says Baker, teachers there do not accumulate experience and the higher salaries that come with it. As a result, charters can offer more services in addition to better pay for teachers – all at a lower cost to taxpayers as philanthropy networks fill the gaps. But for an old guard of teacher-professionals, for whom teaching is a skilled career, rather than a temporary resume builder, the comparison is unfair.

“Who champions our cause?” asks NTU president Joseph Del Grosso. “We don’t have anyone talking about the good public schools that we have . . . that are competitive with, and even better than, some of the suburban schools. But that’s not what [the superintendent] is advertising.” Rather than the backbone of these public schools, district documentation points out that “Staff make up 95 percent of school-based budgets,” and that “Because NPS will lose approximately 30 percent more of its students, unfortunately, we must reduce staff by a similar factor.”

“What we don’t know is whether some of that projected enrollment decline is from reconstituting some of [Anderson’s] own schools as being under charter governance,” said Baker. “That would be like a forced enrollment decline.”

“That would seem to be part of the story,” he added, before noting that district language separates the two policies. “Logistically they got to be coupled, but no one’s being clear as to exactly how.”

Matthew Frankel, director of communications for Newark Public Schools, said that none of the charter expansions under the One Newark plan are newly approved seats. “Charter schools were pre-approved by the state,” he said. Indeed, the many pages of public documentation for the One Newark plan clearly state that all of the additional charter seats were approved in prior years by the Christie administration. The documents insist the plan “redirects charter growth to those neighborhoods most in need of – and demanding – innovation.” But whether pre-approved or new, it is state policy that seems to be directing students in Newark into privately managed schools.

As the district prepares to shed staff, the superintendent attempted during the last week of February to get permission from Christopher Cerf, state education commissioner, to make “performance-based layoffs that consider quality alongside years of service,” as one district document put it. It was the commissioner’s last week, and the request would have been one of his final acts at the head of the state Education Department.

But the policy met scrutiny on two levels. The first was from the union, which saw the move as an attempt to circumvent negotiated contract language that protects the professional autonomy of teachers. Joseph Del Grosso described the “equivalency requests” – the name the district has given the policy – as a “waiver” that would provide for “dismissing people without due process.” In its own explanation for the requests, the district made clear that the purpose of the policy was to allow staffing decisions to be made on the basis of newly implemented teacher evaluations, rather than the contractually mandated seniority requirements.

“We negotiated peer review,” said Del Grosso, referring to the employment contract the union signed with the district at the end of 2012. In addition to including teachers’ input in their coworkers’ performance evaluations, the union president explained, the contract was intended to provide for an appeals process in case disagreements arose. In the wake of the 2012 TEACHNJ Act, which allows superintendents to dismiss at will teachers rated “ineffective,” these protections were especially important to the union. “Those things are primarily why we signed on to this contract,” he said, adding that they are also “the things that haven’t been implemented.”

A document supplied by the district noted that six peer oversight committee meetings with NTU representatives were convened last year to “discuss the peer validation and teacher evaluation processes.”

The second level on which policy was scrutinized is the methodology of the teacher evaluations themselves: “There’s not any great deal of precision” in the state’s teacher evaluations, said Baker, “nor do they make available the data on the citywide teacher ratings.”

According to Baker, his and others’ research has found that the methods used to determine one of New Jersey’s primary measures of student progress, student growth percentiles, “are particularly bad – that they merely reflect the demography of the students served because they don’t try to control for anything but prior scores.” He added, “As a result, in New Jersey, the schools with more low-income kids, more nonproficient special education kids and so on have significantly lower growth percentiles,” before clarifying that it was unclear what weight the student growth percentiles played in Newark’s teacher evaluations.

Documentation provided by the district did not state how teachers’ annual evaluations were determined beyond including observations “from an outside, independent, experienced organization” based on a “Framework for Effective Teaching.” When asked, the district did not provide the name of the independent evaluators.

As part of her bid for the equivalency requests, Superintendent Anderson was expected to appear before a monthly School Advisory Board meeting last Tuesday night to discuss the policy with the public. Instead, the district sent a letter announcing that neither the Superintendent nor NPS staff would attend that night’s or any future School Advisory Board meetings until the board could ‘commit to ensuring a space conducive to open dialogue with the community’, writing that the “dysfunction displayed within this forum sets a bad example for our children, and it’s no longer a place where meaningful interaction and dialogue occurs between NPS and the public.”

This shocked many. Future announcements and policy changes will be recorded and broadcast, rather than open to public comment as they had been up to that point. The cancellation of the forum also brought into question the education commissioner’s authority to grant the equivalency request, as the public meetings had been thought by Del Grosso to be part of a legal process for having such waivers approved.

While the Office of the Education Commissioner’s’ website states that “The Commissioner’s decisions have the force of law,” New Jersey State Senator Ronald Rice disagreed. “Any granting of equivalency waivers to grant dismissal based on performances in addition to seniority may be violating both the spirit and intent of the statutes [governing seniority rights in employment],” he said. Del Grosso was less sure: “It’s a state-run district; anything could happen.” Commissioner Cerf’s office did not respond for comment, and by February 28, his last day, the requests had not been granted.

But the combination of increased charter management in Newark and arbitrary teacher evaluations for district teachers has caught the ire of more than just the NTU. Senator Rice said that he is opening an investigation into district policy and requesting subpoena power, holding a press conference February 28th to make public the allegations he will be looking into.

“[Anderson]’s been depopulating [the district schools], just like they did in New Orleans,” he said before the conference, alleging that “the idea [behind district and state policy] is to take the public assets, buildings, and to sell these buildings to for-profit corporations.”

He noted that his investigation will look into the sale of one school, the 18th Avenue School, which was sold by the district at half of its appraised price to a for-profit company that shares board members with the charter operator TEAM Academy. A source close to the union alleges that the purchaser – Pink Hulahoop LLC – leveraged the transaction with state tax credits and plans to rent out the building to a charter school.

Another sore point for the NTU has been the increased recruitment of staff by the Teach for America – Newark program during a period of district downsizing. Funded by the Walton Family Foundation, Teach for America – Newark proposes to “support the recruitment, training and support of nearly 370 Newark area teachers over the next two years.” Frankel noted that about 40 teachers in NPS are currently supplied by Teach for America, before directing Truthout to this clarification of the Foundation’s future involvement in Newark, written by the executive director of Teach for America New Jersey. The director asserted that the number of Teach for America openings for the coming year will be “nowhere near 300 as claimed.”

NPS Superintendent Anderson is an alumna of the Teach for America program and a fellow at the Pahara-Aspen Institute, which, as educator Diane Ravitch has noted, is a partner of the Broad Foundation. Through its administrative accreditation program, the Broad Academy, the foundation has trained the superintendents of a number of troubled school districts, including Philadelphia and Chicago.

Called for comment about the Teach for America – Newark program, Walton Family Foundation communications director Daphne Moore did not answer the phone. The Pahara-Aspen institute likewise did not respond to repeated phone calls.

While NPS denies that foundations have any influence over policy, Senator Rice disagrees, alleging that state and district administrators are part of a “privatization movement.” When asked why he thought State Education Commissioner Cerf – to whom Anderson appealed for expanded layoff powers – was leaving office Friday, the Senator said it was to return to “his old boss.” Cerf is on the board of the TEAM Academy, a charter operator implicated in Rice’s investigation, and worked with education consulting firms in New York before entering public service.

“His job was to get people like Cami [Anderson] . . . to take over school districts,” he added. “He’s pretty much implemented and laid the foundation for some successes, if you will, in terms of accomplishing his mission… People look at bridge-gate, but they better look at this Cami-gate stuff and this Cerf-gate stuff, because it seems to be very serious.”

Correction: This piece originally reported that Newark’s School Advisory board meetings were cancelled. They are not; they continue to be held without the presence of Superintendent Anderson and “the NPS Leadership team”.

It takes longer to read this sentence than it does to support our work.

We have 2 days to raise the $30,000 needed to meet Truthout‘s basic publishing costs this month. Will you take a few seconds to donate and give us a much-needed boost?

We know you are deeply committed to the issues that matter, and you count on us to bring you trustworthy reporting and comprehensive analysis on the real issues facing our country and the world. And as a nonprofit newsroom supported by reader donations, we’re counting on you too. If you believe in the importance of an independent, free media, please make a tax-deductible donation today!