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Laura Waters

Getting Past False Dichotomies: Newark's Public School Students are Beating the Odds

Political discussions are often infected with false dichotomies, and the pros and cons of charter schools are not immune from this virus. Some charter advocates brazenly boast of the innate superiority of independent schools freed from the infirmities of union dystrophy. Some charter-detractors warn of the inundation of blood-sucking predators that leech district funding and ghettoize hard-to-teach students in what Dmitri Mehlhorn calls “ the architecture of charter skepticism.” This sort of reductive antithetical construction serves no one well: Any reasonably informed observer knows that there are good and bad charter schools, just like there are good and bad traditional schools. Instead, what if we examined the availability of high-quality classroom seats, regardless of their governance structure, in a city undergoing charter expansion? After all, that's what we're all here for: access for all students to great schools. Last month Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) released a report called Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities. The purpose of this analysis is “to enable city leaders to evaluate how well traditional district and charter schools are serving all their city’s children and how their schools compare to those in other cities.” Are achievement and opportunity gaps, especially in poor and high-minority cities, predetermined? Is it true, as some have concluded, that “poverty and racial inequities are conditions that schools cannot overcome?” Or do some cities beat the odds? The results are mixed among these 50 cities. Student performance was mostly flat. Twenty-five percent of high school students don't graduate in four years. Only 8 percent of students are enrolled in schools that out-performed similar schools. In 29 cities less than 10 percent of students were enrolled in advanced math classes. But not in Newark, one of the few cities that fall into that prestigious category of “beating the odds.” In fact, if you aggregate Newark’s “beat the odds” schools (charter and traditional), Newark is the best-performing urban district in the country. In other words, the expansion of charter schools in Newark has helped all children, regardless which school they attend. This conclusion may appear startling to those who follow anti-charter folk in New Jersey. After all, don’t schools like KIPP and Uncommon “cream-off” top students? Don’t they leech scarce money from district coffers? Don't they push out hard-to-teach kids, those with disabilities or those new to the English language? Let’s look at the data. According to CRPE, in the fifty cities studied, only 8 percent of students were placed in schools that “beat the odds.” In Newark, the percentage was 40 percent, making this district a true outlier. graph Compared to other cities studied, Newark was the leader in students placed in “beat the odds” public schools and “beat the odds” traditional schools. For example, while only 8 percent of students across the 50 cities were enrolled in schools that outperformed schools statewide over the last three years, in Newark about 1 in 3 students were enrolled in schools that outperformed similar schools statewide. graph According to CRPE's analysis, the proportion of Newark students in “beat the odds” schools was significantly higher than almost all other cities. Only Cincinnati runs a close second. graph So what are we to make of Newark's improvement? Simply this: The expansion of charter schools in Newark has helped all students. As Andrew Martin explains, “the percentage of black Newark students attending a school that beat the state proficiency average has tripled in the past 10 years, and this increase can be attributed almost entirely to the growth of the charter sector.” This fact runs contrary to the narrative voiced by opponents of choice who claim that school choice will isolate hard-to-educate students in resource-starved traditional schools, a view just echoed, sadly, by Hillary Clinton (who really ought to know better). Let's get beyond this false dichotomy that divides the organic whole of a public education landscape into a meaningless division of charter and traditional. Such an approach is, at best, self-indulgent and, at worse, detrimental to children. Here's what matters: In Newark, more students have access to seats at high-performing schools and the district is now one of the highest-performing urban districts in the country. That's what matters to families in New Jersey's largest school district and that's what should matter to anyone who cares about public education.  
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey education politics and policy for WHYY’s Newsworks and NJ Spotlight. She is a mother of four and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, for 10 years. An earlier version of this post appeared on NJ Spotlight.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

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