Real Education Reforms Involve Process

I remember when I was in my late teens, my Dad would stand on the front porch of our house and scream at me that I was a communist. I found it funny and would run away from him laughing. I don’t think I was a very good son. Flash forward many years, and I am no longer a teenager, and I am no longer a communist. However, I find myself, figuratively, standing on the front porch screaming at people who are, figuratively, walking by my house. As I sit in my office, I am thinking about what words I would be screaming. Beware comes to mind. Don’t do anything stupid, is something else I see myself screaming. Or, how in the heck did you see any value coming out of that result?

That last sentence came to me as I thought about Cory Booker giving up his campaign for President. I would not have voted for him and will probably not vote for any Democrats in the 2020 election, but there is one thing that he has done in Newark, New Jersey that I greatly respect. That is the implementation of Charter Schools. I believe in educational choice. Wealthy people have the ability to choose where their children are educated. If they don’t like the public offering in their neighborhood, they can pay for their kids to attend a private school. This ensures that their children get the education they need to be productive human beings.

Inner city poor, and rural poor for that matter, cannot afford to send their kids to private schools, so they are stuck with whatever the public option is for them. Most of those schools are underfunded and filled with poor educators (probably a huge generalization). These parents can’t afford a choice. However, the charter school option has helped parents make educational choices for the betterment of their children. I think it is a good option, one that, for the most part, has helped children get the education they deserve.

Cory Booker, aka Spartacus, supported charter schools in Newark. And as Marcus Winters reports, “Anti-school choice lobbyists were never going to forgive him [Booker] for saying at the 2008 Democratic National Convention that they had tarred and feathered him for supporting charters.” Through Booker’s leadership “Newark’s citywide graduation rate rose to 77% in 2018 from just above 50% a decade ago thanks to the charter-school network schools he helped create.” We read of charter-school successes all over the United States, which has irritated a very strong teachers union. Booker and Obama have both supported charter schools in the past, but now all Democratic candidates for president oppose charter school expansion.

In Newark the charter school system is extensive and is seen by many as successful. Charter schools “enroll about 6% of public school students nationwide.” But in Newark, New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, Oakland, Kansas City, Denver, and Boston the percentage is much higher, and “those urban areas are where parent support for charter schools is highest.”

Opposition to this force for good is antagonistic. Denver wants to stop new charters, and “Massachusetts voters in 2016 overwhelmingly defeated a referendum that would have allowed charter schools to expand.” Hmm, do teachers really want the best for their students?

Back in 2010 Mark Zuckerberg decided to donate $100 million to improve public schools in Newark, New Jersey. Since that time people have discussed whether the donation had the impact that was intended. It seems like the results are viewed differently based upon one’s politics. The Manhattan Institute reported that the resulting charter school system has led to large improvement in math and reading scores. However, the current mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, has been pushing for reversing the expansion of charter schools.

I did a little reading on what happened to the millions of dollars given to Newark to improve its school systems. The first thing I noticed was from Dale Russakoff, a former reported for the Washington Post. He described how school leaders in Newark were corrupt, “treating itself to junkets, traveling to remote vacation islands on school district money.” Hmm, seems so normal.

The $100 million donated by Zuckerberg was matched by several other billionaires. According to the articles I read, the $100 million grew to $200 million. Cory Booker was instrumental in raising this money, and I have no doubt people wanted to make a difference. The money became a part of the Foundation for Newark’s Future. They would have the responsibility to hand out the money to improve education in the city. The board leadership was made up of Booker, and anyone donor who gave more than $5 million. This led to one of the biggest complaints that people from Newark were not on the board. There was an attempt to rectify this, but the “listening sessions wanted to report back what they heard, and what uses they thought Newark residents wanted the money to go toward, they were told the city had already decided on the changes it wanted.” No one really wanted to hear from the parents. Booker told Governor Christie that he “wanted to make Newark the charter school capital of the nation,” but was he successful. To determine this, I wanted to find out where the money went?

The breakdown is as follows. $48.3 million went to a new union agreement. $31 million of that number went to back pay of teachers. $57.6 million went to expanding and operating charter schools. $21 million went to consultants working on “everything from comms to data systems, strategic planning, financial analysis, reorganization of district offices, teacher and principle evaluation frameworks, advice on teachers’ contract negotiations, design of universal enrollment system, and analysis of student performance data.” $12 million went to local charities, and the rest went to smaller projects.

After reviewing where the money went. I thought about the results. What was the impact? According to research done by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “student progress in both English and math fell in the first few years of reform, reflecting the disruption they caused. But then student progress sped up again; math achievement is back where it was before the reforms, and English growth is higher.”  However, another report states, “Newark’s test scores have gone from 39th to the 78th percentile – from below average to considerably above.” As I noted above, 2018 high school graduation rate was 77%.

I have thought a lot about charter schools. My children went to a public school, and they seem to have done well. However, if I lived in the inner city, I am not so sure I would want my kids to go to a public school. I as a parent would want to have choices. That is why I think some combination of public schools, public charters, private schools and private charters are best for the community. I think education unions can be problematic, but I think teachers need an advocate. All stakeholders in our educational system should remember that they are there for only one reason: to educate our children.

Public schools can be successful, and charter schools can be a meaningful option, as well as needed competition to the public offering. However, there is one lesson from Newark that I think we need to pay attention too. “Regardless of the net impact on the district or test scores, the biggest lesion of the Newark experience is likely about process.” Decisions should not be made without consulting those that are impacted by the decisions. Parents were left out of the loop in Newark, and educational reform needs to include parents. The process of educational reform will take a village, not a bunch of experts who think they know everything.

And that is my thought for the day!


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