Sunday, March 2, 2014

Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. Is My Hero Of The Day!

Thank you, Congressman Donald Payne, Jr.! We need more like this!

Good news: as the battle between Superintendent Anderson and the parents, community and teachers of Newark escalates, more elected officials in NJ are realizing that Cami and Christie aren't doing “a heckuva job” in reformy Newark. The latest is Congressman Donald Payne, Jr. (D-10) who sent this tersely worded letter to Anderson which basically asks her why and how the One Newark plan will provide successful outcomes forall students” (his emphasis):

“My greatest concern is that this plan seems to only grow charter schools; significant efforts to strengthen the district’s traditional public schools are noticeably absent. One cannot discount the work that high performing charter schools in Newark continue to do to educate the lucky minority of students who win a lottery (emphasis mine) to these schools. However, given the fact that a majority of students still attend the district’s traditional public schools, any effort to strengthen outcomes for all students must (emphasis his) include strengthening traditional public schools.”

And therein, my friends, lies the rub. Where is the plan to strengthen the public schools? The charter lottery jackpot has now morphed into that scene in ‘Toy Story’ where Woody and Buzz are trapped in the Alien claw machine and as the evil Sid maneuvers the claw to capture as many toys as possible, the mesmerized little green guy says, “The claw is our master… The claw decides who will go and who will stay.” Anderson and company will decide who hits the charter school jackpot and who gets stuck in the underfunded public schools. How’s that for ‘choice’?

Payne continues:

“One Newark identifies equity as a major tenant of its vision. Yet, through this plan, children in some neighborhood schools will be kicked out of their school with only the chance of a lottery win to gain acceptance into the high performing charter school that will take over their current school. If not accepted, the students are at risk of being redirected to a school with outcomes similar to the school they are being removed from.” (emphasis mine)

BINGO! The only way there will be equity in Newark is if the One Newark plan includes a major investment of resources to ensure that every school is high quality, and every child has access to every school. Why would a parent want to send their child to a public school that is chronically underfunded and under resourced?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ‘choice’ is very different than ‘access’.

If I could bet on the winners and losers in this hot mess, I’d buy that lottery ticket over waiting out another 20 years or so to maybe see my paltry state pension.

The winners: charter schools. They always have been. I won’t go into charts and graphs when New Jersey has the dynamic statistical duo of Jersey Jazzman and Dr. Bruce Baker. If you don’t follow them (and I can’t imagine you’re reading this without already knowing about them), then just DO IT! Both have presented mountains of evidence that charters skim the best and brightest from the top, that their attrition rates are questionable at best. And with the obscene amounts of money now flowing into and out of the charter school industry, many—not all—are more about turning a 21st Century profit than turning out ‘21st Century Learners’. Payne calls out Anderson on the disparity:

“What efforts are you making to collaborate with high performing charter schools to replicate their success in the district’s traditional public schools? Are any efforts underway to provide the district’s traditional public schools with similar freedoms and the flexibility to innovate as seen in charter schools?”

The losers: Children who are any combination of low-income and/or non-English speaking and/or physically, mentally or developmentally compromised. Every school district has some, but NJ’s high poverty districts have more, and there is a direct correlation between poverty and a child’s ability to learn. Newark’s charters have less of them than their traditional public schools. Payne knows this and he’s holding Anderson’s feet to the fire:

“The One Newark plan praises the work that charter schools have done, noting that charter students in Newark gain an additional seven-and-a-half months of learning in reading and nine months in math compared to their Newark Public School peers. And, in describing the equity component of the One Newark plan, it is written that students with the greatest challenges will be served with excellent schools first, not last. To this end, what efforts will take place to ensure that the high needs students in Newark Public Schools will be served by the highly acclaimed charter schools, first?”

Indeed. Where is the plan for investing in programs that address the specific needs of children—and their parents—living in high poverty? Where is the plan for ensuring that teachers are given the training and tools to effectively teach high needs children instead of being fired and replaced with Teach For America recruits with a paltry 5-weeks of training? Where is the plan to ensure that every Newark school is a healthy, safe, inviting, well-equipped learning environment that serves as an anchor and resource for communities? When I peruse the One Newark plan website, everything sounds great. But the fact is that if all these questions were answered, if all these issues were addressed when the state took over control of Newark’s schools 20 years ago, none of this would be happening. Every neighborhood school in Newark would be high quality, just like they are in the overwhelming majority of New Jersey’s affluent suburbs.

I do hope Congressman Payne continues to question and demand accountability. It is my sincere hope that the rest of NJ’s congressional delegation representing our high-poverty communities does the same. Their constituents deserve no less.