Newark is tightening restrictions on applying to charter schools. Now, families must prove they live in the city before applying, and some have even received home visits to verify their addresses.
The new policy is a break from the past, when families did not have to prove their residency until after they were assigned to schools. The Newark school district, which oversees enrollment at some charter schools, quietly made the rule change this fall, though it’s only recently attracted attention.
District officials say the new rule will ensure that out-of-towners don’t nab seats reserved for Newark residents, and will prevent schools from having to unenroll nonresidents later. But charter school advocates say the policy has created undue obstacles for families looking to enroll their children in non-district schools.
“Newark families deserve a fair and equitable opportunity to choose where they want to send their children to school,” said Barbara Martinez, spokesperson for North Star Academy, Newark’s largest charter school network. “We oppose the new hurdles that make it harder for families to choose charter schools.”
The dispute is the latest flashpoint in a series of clashes between the Newark school district and the city’s charter schools — publicly funded but privately managed schools that educate more than a third of Newark public school students. District Superintendent Roger León has urged the state to shut down several Newark charter schools, and made changes to the enrollment process that charter advocates opposed.
Much of the tension centers on an enrollment website, called Newark Enrolls, which lets families apply to any traditional public school or participating charter schools. The district manages the system, and therefore controls the application process.
The district’s new policy adds an extra step to the process. Now, in order to apply to charter schools, families must submit three documents proving they live in Newark, including a driver’s license, utility bill, or lease. In the past, families did not have to supply residency documents until after they completed the application process and were matched with schools.
The new requirement appears to apply only to families who want to enroll in charter schools or are new to the district — not to families who want to stay in district schools.
In addition, the district has sent some of its attendance counselors to the homes of families applying to Newark schools to check whether they live at their listed addresses. The home visits appear targeted at families who applied to charter schools, advocates say.
“We’ve received multiple reports from multiple charter schools hearing complaints from mostly Spanish-speaking parents about district attendance counselors showing up at their homes,” said Kyle Rosenkrans, executive director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, a Newark-based nonprofit that promotes school choice. One charter school received 15 complaints from parents last week about the visits and another fielded eight complaints, he added, calling the visits “strong-armed, invasive tactics towards parents.”
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The Newark Teachers Union, which represents attendance counselors, filed a grievance with the district last week over the home visits. The counselors should not have to conduct the “charter school residency reviews” in addition to their normal duties, the grievance said.
A district spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the new enrollment requirements or the home visits.
At a school board meeting Tuesday, Superintendent León said any families who are having trouble uploading required documents to the enrollment website can visit any district or charter school for assistance.
“No one’s going to be denied going to the school of their choice because there’s some document that they needed to submit,” he said.
The more stringent residency verification follows an enrollment snafu last year, in which the district assigned some non-Newark residents to Newark charter schools. The mistake prompted a state investigation because state law requires most charter schools to enroll only students from the communities in which they’re located. (Some Newark charter schools may enroll out-of-district students, but they typically must admit city residents first.)
District officials say the new policy will prevent out-of-district students from being matched to Newark schools then unenrolled later. They also say the New Jersey Department of Education approved the policy change. (A state spokesperson could not immediately confirm that.)
However, charter school advocates claim that the policy violates state guidelines for charter school admissions. The guidelines say that initial application forms can only ask for basic information, such as a student’s name, current school, and address — “no proof of residency, immunizations, interview or school tour required.”
“Proofs of residency can only be required after a lottery has been run and students have been matched,” Harry Lee, president and CEO of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association, said in an email. “Residency verification documents, like birth certificates and utility bills, are difficult to collect even in a typical year. In the current climate, it is nearly impossible.”
John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union and a vocal opponent of charter schools, said it “makes complete sense” to require families to prove their Newark residency before enrolling. The policy will prevent the district from transferring money to charter schools for students who live outside Newark and therefore are not entitled to district funds, Abeigon said.
“Why not nip it in the bud during enrollment?” he said. “I personally think it’s long overdue.”
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But parent advocates say the new policy foists yet another burden on families.
In past years, families had until the new school year began to track down residency documents, noted Jasmine Morrison, a charter school parent and advocate. They could also get help uploading the documents at their assigned schools.
Now, families must upload the documents themselves by the Jan. 29 application deadline. Morrison said that has been challenging for many parents she’s spoken with, including those who were forced to move in with friends or relatives during the pandemic, making it harder to prove their Newark residency.
“To make it a requirement at this time just makes it extra hard at a time when we don’t need anything else to be hard,” said Morrison, who has two children in North Star Academy. She also is a member of a parent organizing group called Unapologetic Parents.
Tafshier Cosby agreed. A charter school employee whose children attended Newark charter schools, she said the district should relax application rules during the pandemic — not add new requirements.
“Give parents some grace,” said Cosby, co-CEO of the Newark-based advocacy group Parent Impact. “They already have enough they’re going through — don’t make it harder.”
Update: This story has been updated to include Superintendent Roger León’s comments about enrollment during a school board meeting Tuesday evening.