new era

‘All eyes are on Newark’: As the city regains control of its schools, a look at what’s to come

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Newark children received a visit from Mayor Ras Baraka in March 2017.

For years, votes cast by Newark’s elected school board carried mostly symbolic weight. On Thursday, as the board reclaims full control of New Jersey’s largest school district after a 22-year state takeover, even its smallest decisions will acquire new significance.

A preview of that transformation was on display at a board meeting last week, as members debated when to hold their next round of elections. Moving them from April to November, when other local elections are held, could save the school district about $250,000 per election. But doing so could also politicize the board race, discouraging ordinary citizens from throwing their hats into the ring.

As they weighed their options, board member Crystal Fonseca urged her colleagues to choose carefully.

“Every decision we make reflects on what this board is doing with local control,” she said, moments before the board voted to keep the elections in April. “We’re totally responsible for every penny at this point on. We can’t point the finger anymore.”

The return to local control marks a watershed for Newark, a vote of confidence more than two decades after a state judge decried “failure on a very large scale” within its schools and “nepotism, cronyism and the like” among its school board. It comes as a number of states pivot away from takeovers — an extraordinary intervention whose outcomes have varied — and allow districts from Philadelphia to New Orleans to reclaim authority over their schools.

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In Newark, the state takeover had plodded on for years before a recent whirlwind of activity spurred by a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010 and a bipartisan political alliance between former Gov. Chris Christie and then-Mayor Cory Booker. The aggressive changes thrust Newark into the national spotlight while inflaming local parents and activists who opposed the closure of some neighborhood schools, the expansion of charter schools, and the hiring of expensive outside consultants.

Now, as Newarkers again steer the course of their school system, towering questions loom on the horizon.

Will the district maintain its recent academic gains under a yet-to-be-named superintendent answering to board members representing separate constituencies? Will it manage to shield school budgets from cuts even as more funds flow to charter schools? And will its school board avoid the type of scandals that precipitated the state takeover in 1995, when its members were accused of spending public money on expensive meals and conferences in Hawaii even as the vast majority of the district’s mostly poor students of color failed to pass basic proficiency tests?

“This is a monumental task,” said Tave Padilla, the board’s vice chair. “All eyes are on Newark.”

The board’s first order of business will be to choose a permanent replacement for Superintendent Christopher Cerf, who will step down Thursday, several months before his contract expires, to make way for a new schools chief. (His deputy, Robert Gregory, will act as interim superintendent through June.) Cerf, whom Christie appointed as Newark’s schools chief in 2015, had promised to help Newark regain control of its schools — a years-long process that culminated in September when state officials signed off on the transition.

What’s shaping the conversation: years of sweeping change

Cerf was previously the state education commissioner, where he joined Christie and Booker in devising an overhaul of Newark’s school system that Cerf called “whole-district reform.” Funded in part by Zuckerberg’s gift and a matching amount from other donors, the changes would eventually include performance-based teacher pay, a downsized central office, a single enrollment system for district and charter schools, and the shuttering of 11 district schools. (Last school year, Newark had 64 district schools.) The share of students in charter schools also doubled, with charters now enrolling about a third of Newark’s over 50,000 public-school students.

The changes ignited bitter opposition from the local teachers union and many community members. At one point, several students staged a sit-in at the district headquarters after Cami Anderson, the schools chief who enacted the new policies, stopped attending board meetings where she was drowned out by protestors.

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Mayor Ras Baraka cut the ribbon on the Newark Public Schools’ new headquarters in January, along with outgoing Superintendent Christoper Cerf and members of the Newark school board.

During a press briefing Monday with Booker, now a U.S. senator, Cerf defended the changes made over the past seven years. He said that while officials could have done a much better job explaining the policies and listening to the public’s concerns, “sometimes change has casualties.”

“The measure of success here is not the degree of peace, harmony, or consensus,” Cerf said.

After the reforms began in 2011, students’ annual growth on state tests declined for three years before rising again in 2015, according to a recent study led by Harvard researchers, which tried to measure the impact of the changes. By 2016, students’ annual gains in English, but not math, were higher than comparable students across New Jersey, the researchers found. (A review of the study questioned whether the recent improvements can be linked to the reforms, and said that other New Jersey districts also made gains in 2015 after the state adopted new tests.)

Newark officials note the study did not include 2017 test scores, which went up in both English and math. They also point to other measures of recent progress, including the district’s 78 percent graduation rate — a nearly 20 percentage-point increase from 2011. The district is also retaining more of its highly rated teachers and fewer of those with poor ratings.

Meanwhile, Cerf has managed to ease some of the tensions that flared under Anderson, developing a cordial relationship with the school board and Mayor Ras Baraka, a former principal who was elected in 2014 after fiercely opposing Anderson’s policies. Under Cerf, the district adjusted the new enrollment system based on public feedback, and launched a “community schools” program with Baraka to bring extra social services to several schools in the South Ward, the city’s poorest section.

At a ribbon-cutting last week at the district’s new offices, Baraka said Cerf had done “awesome work.” But he also suggested that it is time for a change.

“Today marks a new day in the district,” he said. “Not just from an old building to a new building, but to a new perspective, a new journey, a new road that we all start out on here in the city of Newark.”

What to watch: the two-year transition ahead

As Newark regains control of its schools, it will be guided by a two-year transition plan created by the state with input from Newark officials.

The 73-page document details actions the district must take — including holding a public vote in November to determine whether the board will continue to be elected or appointed by the mayor. The plan also calls for a state-appointed monitor who will advise the district and track its progress until 2020. (The state selected Anzella King-Nelms, a retired Newark deputy superintendent, for that role.)

The plan also stipulates that several of the district’s current policies should remain in place for at least another year or two, including its approach to teacher evaluation and the joint district-charter enrollment system. “The details in the plan really dictate more of the same,” said Christopher Tienken, an associate professor of education administration at Seton Hall University who has been critical of the state takeover.

For now, while a firm hired by the school board conducts a national search for a new schools chief, the person in charge is Robert Gregory, Cerf’s former deputy.

The son of a Newark educator and the founding principal of American History High School, Gregory said he will devote special attention to recruiting and supporting strong educators. “I’m a people, not a programs, person,” said Gregory, who hopes to be considered for the permanent superintendent job.

The Newark Teachers Union negotiated a contract renewal with the district last year that maintains the performance bonuses while giving teachers more planning time. But recruitment remains a challenge, with fewer than two educators applying for each job opening. Teacher absenteeism is also high: Last school year, the average teacher missed nearly 17 work days, excluding family or medical leave, compared to an average of eight missed days due to illness or personal leave in most districts, according to a 2017 study.

But Gregory’s most daunting task may be helping the district set its budget.

State funding has been flat even as enrollment has grown in recent years, leading the district to sell off buildings, switch health-insurance providers, and relocate its offices to cut costs. The growth of the city’s charter-school sector has also drained district funds: During the current fiscal year, the district transferred $237 million of its $930 million budget to charters schools, a 160 percent increase over 2010.

As Gregory steps into his new role, he’s been meeting with regularly with the board, including at an all-day retreat Saturday. The test for him — and the permanent superintendent who will begin July 1 — will be to serve the board and partner with parents, the teachers union, civic groups and others without being distracted by conflicting demands, said Kenneth Wong, an education policy professor at Brown University who studies school governance.

“Oftentimes, it’s kind of a policy competition,” in districts with elected school boards, he said. “If you don’t have a clear vision, it’s very easy for the district to be pulled apart by all these competing interests.”

As they left last week’s school board meeting shortly before it ended around 10 p.m., Stephen and Tonya Outing seemed to grasp the enormity of the task facing Gregory — and all of Newark.

Two of their children attend the large Lafayette Street School and an older daughter graduated from American History High School while Gregory was in charge. (Stephen called him the “MVP” — most valuable principal.) While they feel the district is headed in the right direction, they ticked off a long list of improvements they hope to see under the new superintendent: better reading instruction, more teacher training, high-performing schools for families to choose from.

“He has a lot of work to do,” Tonya said.

Chalkbeat Newark is coming this March. For more Newark coverage, sign up for our newsletter — also coming soon — here. Finally, we’d love to hear what stories you’d like us to cover. If you have ideas, please drop me a line or fill out this brief survey

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”