Build On Newark's Progress

On April 21, 2011, Huffington Post article Newark's Underperforming Schools Almost Have A New Leader, described the Newark public schools as "one of the country's most troubled school systems," citing a spending level of $25,000 per pupil, persistent "achievement gaps" and a 50 percent graduation rate. These "facts" are then used to call for "education reforms" to "turn things around" in this "failing district," although none of the reforms are identified.

To anyone familiar with the Newark public schools, it's painfully obvious that the article contains little, if any, accurate information about past and present efforts to improve public education in the city.

Let's start with a few basic facts. NPS serves 44,000 students in its district and charter schools, most of whom are low-income (at-risk), black and Latino students. Eight percent of the district students are English-language learners, and 16 percent are classified as students with disabilities, according to data from the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE).

As reported by the NJDOE, Newark spends approximately $16,900 per pupil, compared to a statewide average of about $13,800. But using a calculation that adjusts for student need as defined by New Jersey's funding formula, Newark spends about $10,500 per pupil, an amount lower than the state average of $10,700.

While the district continues to face tough challenges, Newark has also created successful reforms in recent years that need to be sustained and strengthened.

Through much hard work by local educators, parents and community leaders, Newark public schools have made concrete progress in recent years. According to an Education Law Center Report, nearly six thousand 3- and 4-year-olds are now enrolled in high-quality preschool, a program considered the best in the nation. Academic performance has improved in elementary schools and, as the Schott Foundation reports, black male graduation rates have risen.

Schools have also brought in social and health services and offer extended learning opportunities for students. Many features in the celebrated Harlem Children's Zone have been in the Newark schools for some time, though budget cuts threaten to erode these programs.

Of course, many schools -- district-run and charter -- urgently need improvement, a few dramatically so. More than 1,300 youngsters are still not in preschool, and Governor Christie has blocked construction of several new schools, leaving students trapped in crumbling, outmoded buildings. The district must improve the evaluation of teachers, and ramp up meaningful professional development. Principals and school leaders need better preparation and support. Extended learning time and access to health and social services must be expanded to every school.

But, Governor Christie cut $42 million in aid to Newark schools this year as part of a larger, statewide cut in school aid. According to data presented by the district in a pending court challenge to the Governor's aid cut, Newark was forced to terminate 500 teachers and other staff, and make other program and service cuts. More cuts are slated for next year, unless the State Supreme Court steps in to require the Governor and Legislature to honor their commitment to provide aid under the State's s funding formula.

The Governor's agenda for Newark: private school vouchers and more charter schools, even though, as in other cities, charter performance is comparable to that of the district's schools. And months after Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to the district, there is still no clear, public plan for the use of those funds.

Yes, the Zuckerberg pledge has generated much hoopla in certain circles, mostly from those elsewhere. But the last thing Newark students need is more over-the-top rhetoric about "failing" or "troubled" schools, or wild claims about spending levels and school performance that have no basis in fact or reality.

What Newark does need is a commitment to sustain the gains already made through research-proven, effective investments, practices and initiatives, designed to reach all students, not just a few.

Newark educators, parents, leaders and university partners embraced education reform years ago, and know what's best for their students, schools and community. Let's make sure they decide how to move forward, building upon Newark's hard-won progress.