Ras Baraka, the recently elected mayor of Newark, just published an op-ed in the NYT. You can read it here.
Mayor Baraka makes a couple of points:
1. The state of New Jersey took over Newark schools about 20 years, and this has been a total failure.
2. The recent major philanthropic investment in Newark has mostly been a failure.
3. Things aren’t getting better.
4. The school system should be transferred to mayoral control.
5. The following reforms should be implemented: expand pre-k, train teachers, reduce class sized, overhaul curricula, and raise expectations.
I’m sympathetic to much of his argument.
Twenty years of state control has not resulted in significant citywide improvement.
The philanthropic investment in teacher compensation was poorly spent.
Things in Newark aren’t getting better at a fast enough rate.
Yet, interestingly enough, the mayor does not detail the one bright spot of state intervention: the growth of high-performing charter schools.
CREDO studies indicate that Newark charter schools are amongst the best in the nation.
On average, Newark charter schools deliver an incredible nine months of additional learning a year (when compared to Newark’s traditional schools).
Admittedly, it would not surprise me if the charter sector is not yet serving its full fair share of the most at-risk students. But the city’s new unified enrollment system should correct this.
Reports indicate that Newark’s charter sector is on pace to grow to serving 40% of Newark’s students.
The most direct path to making Newark an excellent educational system is to go even further. Let great charter schools expand so long as they keep providing Newark students excellent educational opportunities.
The mayor rightfully calls for a great school in every neighborhood. Expanding charters could achieve this, as well as give parents additional great schools to attend in the case that they do not wish to attend their neighborhood school.
Much of the other reforms the mayor desires – expanded pre-k, better trained teachers, lower better curricula, higher expectations – could all be achieved via a charter school strategy. Many of the best charters in Newark have already adopted these practices.
And, I suspect, the best traditional schools in the city would adopt many of these practices if they were granted charter status and given real autonomy.
But, ultimately, it should be up to schools to decide whether or not to adopt these reforms.
The irony of Baraka’s critique of top-down reforms is that, instead of giving every school in Newark true freedom, he proposes another set of top-down reforms. These top-down reforms are simply his instead of the state’s.
Newark could become the nation’s highest performing urban school system in the country.
There are very few cities in America where the charter sector is so high-performing, and has so much capacity to grow, that providing an excellent education to every child in the city is within such close reach.
All Newark has to do is free all of its schools from top-down mandates, both the state’s and the city’s.
Or to put it another way: Newark needs to let great schools thrive.