Charter Schools: Russakov’s The Prize, and Lessons from Newark

Summary: Dale Russakov’s tale of the assault by reformers on Newark Schools is a saga of conflict, righteous myopia, entrenched interests, unintended consequences, upheaval in neighborhoods, grudging progress, and a rending of social fabric; yet in the end no easy characterization applies.

The Newark Public Schools are in veritable ruin on the edge of fiscal collapse, after a few years of scorched earth school reform, and the introduction en masse of charter schools. The whole story, told ably by Dale Russakov in her recent book, The Prize, has unfolded as surely in retrospect as a Greek tragedy, in part a narrative of good intentions outflanked by real conditions, and of destruction and public upheaval that have distracted from some of the good work actually done.

Make no mistake: Newark schools had earned their label as “failed.” Faced with the seemingly intractable, reformers have closed failing schools in Newark and replaced them with charter options, however in a top down, deaf ear to the ground fashion.

The reformers failed themselves to note that New Jersey state law enshrines seniority and tenure protections for teachers, so as district schools closed and their teachers were left without positions, the district was on the hook for their salaries, whether or not they did productive work, and without the state subsidies that vanished from the budget with the transfer of thousands of kids to charters. These “excess” teachers apparently could not readily be reassigned per contract, and have not been picked up by the charters, who tend toward the young and the Teach for America type.

Undeterred, the now exited superintendent of schools, Cami Anderson, dictated that 40% of students in Newark would be enrolled in charters by the present school year, which would prove bloody for the tradition of neighborhood schools, and served as the last straw for a populace that felt that the reforms were being rammed down their throats by outsiders, and white folk at that. As part of the accelerated opening of charters, numerous neighborhood schools, centers of community, would be closed and schools consolidated, fiscally necessary with diminished revenues, but humanly a blow to already blighted neighborhoods.

On the ground, charters in Newark were generally outperforming the district schools, for complex reasons, which fueled the exodus from the district schools, and deepened the crisis for the 60% of students left behind in the district schools.
The improving performance of Newark charters, as with success of charters elsewhere, is laden with a heavy asterisk. Both meta studies and critics have noted that charters have “cherry picked,” in both a passive and an active sense, those students most likely to be successful in their system, and have left those students more deeply impacted by poverty to fend for themselves in district schools. As the argument goes, kids who select for charters are more likely to have a parent or parents ambitious for their success and so organize family efforts to get their student into a charter and support him or her once there. Moreover, a student from a more disorganized family who manages to land in a charter may be less likely to meet the academic and behavioral expectations of the charter, and so wash out. The upshot is that charter success, while real, is based on a collectively more purposeful population than that of regular public schools, which are the halls of last resort.

In the face of all these pressures, many parents remained unconvinced that the district would “take care of” their children. The charters as a group continued to effectively exclude the most entrenched of the needy kids, despite Anderson’s efforts to stretch their services, and the district’s survival was uncertain, to say the least, as the bottom financial line veered toward the specter of fiscal collapse.

The mayor’s race in 2014 revolved around the boiling emotions in the neighborhoods, and the sense of voters that their kids had been poorly served by those in charge. There were hints that better lines of communication might have brought some mutual understanding, but by now the district was embattled, the reformers righteous and barricaded, and seemingly intent on simply blowing up the public district without replacing it with stable and trustworthy options for all needy kids.

In fact, it became clear that reformers had entered the arena without a clear plan to resurrect the district schools, or to even anticipate the quagmire of difficulties that would be created by the drastic transfer of resources to such a large stable of charter schools. Similar dynamics may exist in Philadelphia and Detroit, which also teeter on fiscal collapse and have invested heavily in charters. It is worth note that still other large cities investing heavily in charters seem to be weathering the fiscal storm better, albeit with different circumstances.

In Newark’s case, test scores in the regular district schools continued to languish, despite some reforms and new teaching blood that seemed to indicate otherwise. It is worth speculating that the atmospheric furor in which the district was steeped affected students and teachers negatively. One also wonders if the higher percentage of the neediest kids left behind by the charters further lagged the overall district scores.

The quest for better schools is a contentious one. In the case of Newark, an impoverished community is provided jobs by a bloated school bureaucracy, and state law protects teachers’ jobs via political leverage. Thus powerfully entrenched interests, more complex than simple greed, stand to lose by school reform that channels funding in greater percentage to the classroom. Charters, for example, where they succeed do so in significant part by a much more efficient use of the funding they receive. Long story short, a Newark charter classroom might see around twelve thousand dollars per student while a district classroom would see approximately seven and a half thousand. It should not be a wonder that charters tend to outperform district schools based on this metric. Freedom from state and union structures that allow flexibility in use of personnel is a creative icing on the cake.

Thus, the argument for blowing up the old school district.

Perhaps the logical conclusion is that a district of 100% charters should replace the old model. “Not so fast,” say the residents, “you’ve lost us by how you have treated us, you outsiders. We don’t trust you.”

Russakov herself speculates that the communities, deeply affected by the desiccation of the district schools, might have still signed on to much of the continuing reforms had they not felt shut out of the deliberations and presented with a fait accompli. The reformers, embattled and perhaps rattled, shot their cause in the foot by consulting only with committees of the already converted. Interestingly, Mark Zuckerberg, a $100 million contributor to reform in Newark schools, has taken a much more consultative tack deeply in the parent and school communities he has subsequently supported in the Bay Area. Burned some, he learned.

With money and power involved, and the welfare of one’s kids in the balance, resistance can take a variety of forms. One of the more interesting that Russakov discusses is what I choose to call the subsistence parent. A mother on the lower end of the social and income scale can be as ferocious in the protection of her offspring as anyone. Given the vagaries of the Newark schools, such a mother might become adept at securing a school’s most energetic and competent teachers for her kids, and thus guide their career through the shoals of inadequate teachers and the perils of poverty. Now the neighborhood school, of which she has made close study in defense of her students, is threatened with closure. Her means of protection of her kids is neutralized; she turns her fear to a resistance to school change. Her family has survived in the old system; why should she trust the changes brought by the reformer, who has torpedoed what she knows will work? Thus does a subsistence farmer in the Amazon basin resist farming techniques that will both increase his income and preserve a fragile environment, because at least he knows he can survive by using the old ways.

The Newark story is a cautionary tale to advocates of charter schools. I, for one, feel a bit naïve as I read Russakov’s tale. In my mind, charters are forums for innovation, sites of experimentation in which hide bound public schools are dissected and put back together in more productive configurations, from which lessons the broader range of public schools reconfigure themselves. Though nationally charters are only modestly more successful than some comparable public schools, there are enough exceptions to teach us that attention to the psycho-social needs of kids in poverty is at least as important to their academic progress as improved curriculum and instruction, and that some proportion of funding needs to be targeted in that outside of academics arena. Ironically, some of the best examples of Newark charters seem to prove just that.

Perhaps the condition of the schools and the prospect for change from within is the defining variable in how aggressively to proceed with charters and how much to invest in reform from within the existing district. Many American schools can and are improving. Maybe some, as in Newark, are too resistant for complex reasons, and need to be circumvented. But the eagerness to do so should be wizened by the prospect of an utter destruction similar to that currently in Newark’s district schools, despite the apparent charter progress elsewhere in the city. There most certainly has been scorched earth in the bargain, and plenty of angst to go around, including that of the innocent.

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One Response to Charter Schools: Russakov’s The Prize, and Lessons from Newark

  1. Pingback: Charters Revisited: It’s a Broad Spectrum Out There or, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly | schooldog

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