Chris Cerf: How Newark’s Public Schools — Both Traditional and Charter — Are Working Together to Lift All Boats

A version of this essay originally appeared at NJ.com
I serve as superintendent of the Newark Public Schools and previously served as the state commissioner of education. In both capacities, I have defined my goal in precisely the same way: to do everything possible to assure that every child, regardless of birth circumstances, has access to a free, high-quality public education that launches him or her into adulthood prepared for success.
The most striking aspect of Charles Wowkanech’s recent column in New Jersey’s Star-Ledger newspaper (“Charter schools threaten diversity”) is that he is indifferent to this basic and, in my view, inarguable goal. Stuck in the same ideological quagmire that has consumed so many others, his view is that public charter schools are bad and traditional public schools are inherently good. In service of that argument, he then proceeds to misstate a rather remarkable array of objectively provable facts about public education in New Jersey.
I am not, as some will mistakenly suggest, a “charter school advocate.” As state commissioner, I used great care in granting charter applicants the privilege of operating a public school. (Of 1.4 million public school students in New Jersey, fewer than 50,000 attend charters.) I also directed the closure of approximately 10 percent of the state's charter schools on the basis of poor academic performance.
In Newark, 31 percent of our 50,000 students attend charter schools, but our “portfolio” also includes one of the best magnet school systems in the state (attended by 36 percent of our high school students), several new traditional public schools, high-quality vocational-technical schools (public, but run by the county rather than by the district), and a successful early-child program operated in equal measure by the district and private, nonprofit providers.
(In-Depth: Impressive Scores for Newark Charters Raise Question — Did City Pick the Wrong Strategy?)
This focus on public schools that work for children — rather than on their governance — is also reflected in how we manage performance. Over the past six years, several of our lowest-performing schools — both traditional and charters — were closed, repurposed, or given a fresh start in an effort to catalyze student learning.
While we have miles to go to reach our ultimate goal, the achievement arrow is pointed decidedly in the right direction. Our students are seeing steady progress in every important metric, including dramatically improved graduation rates, increased reading and math performance, and a narrowing of the racial and economic achievement gap.
This trend is directly attributable to our decision to empower parents with public school choice and to focus relentlessly on the twin values of school performance and equitable access to quality options. Put differently, whether it’s a county vo-tech school, a traditional school, a charter school, or a privately run early-childhood center — we leave it to the ideologues to focus on how a school came into being and direct our attention instead on our central value — is the school working for children?
I respect that Wowkanech’s experience as a union leader may predispose him to a differing view on charter schools, which generally are not subject to collective bargaining. But that is simply no excuse for misstating the facts. He describes traditional public schools as exemplars of “diversity” and charter public schools as segregative. I would encourage him to review the national statistics accumulated in the 63 years since Brown v. Board of Education before he repeats his paean to the diversity of our public schools (or, if he prefers, to visit pretty much any school in at least 85 percent of the 580 districts in New Jersey, including the district where he lives).
In our state’s urban centers, where charters have by far the largest footprint, the numbers belie Wowkanech’s representations. Newark’s school-age children are mostly economically disadvantaged, black and Hispanic. Both our district and our charter schools reflect that, with little difference between the two sectors.
Our nation’s post-Brown failure to live up to its promise has nothing whatever to do with public charter schools but rather is the result of an unfortunate history of racial and economic residential isolation in this country. While more complex, the much-repeated canard that charters do not serve special education students also does not survive close examination. Nearly 10 percent of charter school students are classified, a number that has doubled over the past few years.
And what about our ultimate goal of advancing student learning? I would invite Wowkanech to review data from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. I am not fond of charter/district comparisons, but Newark’s charters are unquestionably making a profound contribution to the overall positive academic direction of the city’s public schools. The Stanford study reports that Newark’s charter sector is the second-highest-performing group in the nation and is yielding seven months of additional learning per year in both reading and math.
But what really matters is whether the district as a whole is improving — as measured by the percentage of Newark’s students who have access to a free, quality public education. (Charters, of course, are free, not-for-profit, open to all and subject to democratically elected oversight.) And Newark’s schools unquestionably are improving, with charters making a material contribution to those gains while the district’s other public schools are also making progress across the board. Indeed, the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that Newark has more “beat the odds” schools than any other city in the country.
The argument that charters are taking resources from public schools is also misleading. When a student opts to attend a public charter school, it is only reasonable that the revenues associated with that student go with him or her. But it is also fair that adequate funding remain with the district to cover its fixed and legacy costs. In Newark, I have worked hard to ensure that the district retains funding to cover those costs.
Consider this thought experiment: If tomorrow all 15,500 charter school students in Newark returned to NPS, we would need to acquire buildings, buy supplies, hire new teachers, and take responsibility for these and myriad other costs. The notion that charters are “draining” traditional public school resources is true only to the extent that districts don’t simultaneously experience an equal and offsetting reduction in expenses. After a period of some imbalance (in both directions), the state funding formula is settling into a reasonable place in this one respect.
False claims about segregation and the imminent demise of districts may serve as useful propaganda, but they directly contradict both the facts and our own experience here in Newark. Charter public schools and district public schools are working together to lift all boats. Together, we are transcending political battles so that all of our students can reach their limitless potential.

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