In Early Lessons from Newark’s Experience with Charter Schools, commissioned by Startup:Education, a Public Impact team led by Juli Kim considers the issues and lessons from a school district where the charter sector has grown so large that its effects on traditional schools are impossible to overlook. The Newark school district, long under control of the state of New Jersey, faces challenges driven in part by strong parent demand for high-performing schools and the rapid growth of a high-performing charter sector: The sector currently serves 27 percent of Newark’s students and is anticipated to serve 40 percent by 2018–19. According to one study, Newark has the second-highest performing charter sector among the nation’s cities. What could other cities and districts with a growing charter presence learn from Newark’s journey?
The district made national news in 2010 when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave Newark a $100 million challenge grant, matched by an equal amount of local and national philanthropy.
Under a state-appointed superintendent, the district pursued a wide-ranging reform agenda, including a major new teacher contract and evaluation system intended to retain and reward the district’s effective teachers and remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.
The district also identified and responded vigorously to a number of concerns that the growing charter sector raised. Those included the location of charter facilities; the concern that charter schools were not serving their “fair share” of high-need students; and the impact of charters on the district’s budget and teacher quality because of state-imposed constraints on the district’s ability to dismiss ineffective teachers. The district’s response, which included a common enrollment system, a common performance measurement system, and “charter launches” in low-performing district facilities, has generated both progress and controversy.
“Amid a strong and growing charter school sector, the Newark school district has undergone significant changes to reverse course on a decades-long struggle to provide consistent quality education to its children,” Startup:Education Executive Director Jen Holleran writes in the foreword. “As this report goes to press, those changes continue as a new superintendent steps in, with a mandate to continue improving school quality while leading a transition back to local control of the district by the elected school board.
“The work has been complex and challenging, and it has required the district to forge a new kind of partnership with the charter school sector in ways that few other cities have seen.”
Coming out of these experiences, Public Impact identified early lessons for other districts, including the importance of:
- Taking a citywide perspective: All students should have equal access to high-quality schools, whether district- or charter-operated. When the charter sector is large, some entity other than the district likely needs to lead the citywide planning that keeps the city’s overall interests in mind.
- Aligning state and district policy: For example, New Jersey’s last-in, first-out employee dismissal policy prevented the district’s (state-appointed) superintendent from fully carrying out her sweeping reform plans, forcing her to keep some ineffective teachers on the payroll even as charter growth requires downsizing.
- Creating effective and genuine community engagement: Transparency builds trust and is a crucial first step, but a district and charter operators must also use sophisticated strategies to increase support for change, neutralize opponents (often well-funded ones), and capitalize on early successes to build momentum and support for further reforms.
- Cultivating the “supply lines” for great district and charter schools: A city with significant numbers of low-performing schools needs operators willing to take on failing schools and serve all students.