Charter Dispute

As León pushes for changes, some charters consider leaving Newark’s unified enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

Newark families could have a harder time applying to certain schools this year if changes sought by the district’s new superintendent spur some charter schools to pull out of the city’s common enrollment system, charter advocates say.

Superintendent Roger León is pushing for the system to no longer assign schools extra students to offset attrition over the summer, according to people briefed on negotiations over the enrollment system. The practice, known as “overmatching,” helps both district and charter schools plan for the coming year, but it also ensures that charter schools fill their seats — something León appears less willing to help with than his charter-friendly predecessors.

The dispute means that district and charter leaders are still hashing out rules for the five-year-old common enrollment system just weeks before applications are due to open. Now, some charter schools are considering withdrawing entirely — potentially triggering a return to the fragmented application process families faced before universal enrollment launched in 2013, charter proponents say.

“Realistically, it’s possible that could happen,” said one of the people briefed on the talks who, like the others, asked to remain anonymous while negotiations continue. “We’re really late in the game right now.”

The dustup marks another instance where León appears eager to roll back his predecessors’ policies — even if it means moving quickly, before all the potential consequences are known.

On the first day of classes, he told principals he was eliminating extra hours for struggling schools, forcing them to scramble to reset their schedules. And before even taking office on July 1, he pushed out dozens of top officials — a move the school board, which was not consulted in advance, partially blocked.

One of those officials was the district’s head of enrollment, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. She oversaw the universal enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families apply to most of the city’s traditional, magnet, and charter schools using a single application. After a chaotic launch that outraged many parents, the system today gets high marks on user surveys. Yet it remains controversial among critics of charter schools who view it little more than a ploy to funnel students into the privately managed schools.

One feature of the system is that it assigns schools — both charter and district — more students than they have space for. This “overmatching” is done to account for the attrition that occurs each year as some students leave the city or decamp to private or county schools. A former district official estimated that most schools lose between 5 to 20 percent of their assigned students that way.

Now, overmatching has become a sticking point in the negotiations, according to those with knowledge of the talks, as León has proposed ending the practice.

It is unclear why, and the district did not make León available for an interview. One possibility is that doing so might appease critics without dismantling common enrollment, which León has said he wants to keep.

But some people in the charter sector believe the superintendent, wanting to retain as many students as possible in the district, is loath to send charters extra students. That prospect has alarmed some charter school operators who fear they could end up with unfilled seats and reduced budgets, as school funding is based on enrollment.

To illustrate how overmatching works, a person connected to the charter-school sector gave an example of a high school with 100 available ninth-grade seats. In the past, the enrollment system might assign the school 115 students based on the assumption that roughly 15 students would not end up attending. If the system only matched 100 students to the school, then it could be left with 15 open seats.

“At an independent charter school, when those 15 students don’t show up, there’s no money coming from anywhere else to adjust their budget,” the person said. “That could put them out of business.”

If the district stops sending charter schools extra students, those schools are likely to start admitting more students from their waitlists. If that happens, district schools may suddenly lose students who were on their rosters. They would then have openings that are likely to be filled by students who arrive midyear, who are often some of the most challenging students to serve.

“District principals hate losing kids to charter waitlists,” the former district official said. “It creates a lot of instability.”

León met with charter-school representatives Thursday, but no final agreement was reached. Even if the two sides work out a compromise, the district’s board of education and each of the boards overseeing the participating charter schools must still vote on the plan.

They have limited time to do that without disrupting the normal admissions cycle. Typically, families can start applying to schools for the following year in the first week of December.

Newark Public Schools spokeswoman Tracy Munford said enrollment would start at the same time this year even though the district-charter enrollment agreement has not been finalized.

“This is in progress and we look forward to it being completed soon,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, some charter school leaders have discussed the possibility of forming a separate charter-only enrollment system if they decide to withdraw from Newark Enrolls. The heads of smaller charter-school organizations are most concerned about the proposed changes, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

Last school year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter school operators participated in the joint enrollment system. (The others each handled their own admissions.) Most families who used Newark Enrolls were matched with one of the top three choices on their applications — 94 percent who applied to kindergarten got a top pick, as did 70 percent who applied to ninth-grade.

Assigning schools more students than they have space for allows additional students to be matched with high-demand schools, said Jesse Margolis, an education researcher who has studied Newark’s enrollment system. The schools end up with roughly the right number of students because some of those on their rosters never show up. And students who would have been assigned to a less popular school if the system hadn’t overmatched instead get to attend one at the top of their list.

“Overmatching is a way of helping kids get their preferences,” said Margolis, who co-wrote a favorable report about Newark Enrolls commissioned by the district’s previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf. “And it helps schools have stable, predictable enrollments.”

Correction: This story has been updated to remove an inaccurate explanation for why some charter schools are more wary of a change to enrollment rules than others.

Referendum Results

Election results: Newark voters stick with an elected school board, NJ voters approve $500 million for schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A voter casts his ballot in Newark's Central Ward on Tuesday.

Newark voters decided Tuesday that the power to choose school board members should remain in their hands, not the mayor’s.

In a referendum held during Tuesday’s midterm elections, voters overwhelmingly opted for an elected school board over one appointed by the mayor. Their decision comes less than a year after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district, putting the nine-member board back in charge of New Jersey’s largest school system and its nearly $1 billion budget.

Statewide, voters narrowly authorized the state to borrow $500 million to pay for the expansion of vocational programs, school security upgrades, and improvements to schools’ water infrastructure. The money for career training will only go to county-run schools and colleges — a boon to those schools, but a potential threat to the district if it leads more students to opt for vocational-technical schools over traditional high schools.

As a result of Newark’s school-board referendum, which was required by state law, voters will continue to elect board members and approve the district’s budget. That outcome was widely expected. The Newark Teachers Union and prominent politicians — including Mayor Ras Baraka, who championed the district’s return to local control — had all urged voters to stick with an elected board.

In a pre-election message posted on the city’s website, Baraka said that allowing the mayor to handpick board members would give him “enormous direct power over education in Newark.”

“I do not want that power,” he said. “I want the people to have that power.”

Also on Tuesday, New Jersey voters re-elected U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, over his Republican rival, Bob Hugin. The high-profile race, which flooded the airwaves with bitter attack ads, drew a large number of voters to the polls despite heavy rain throughout the day.

However, some Newark voters said they were surprised to find questions about school funding and board elections on the ballot when they arrived at their polling sites. Debora Walker, a poll worker at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark’s Central Ward, said she had not seen any ads or information about the two education-focused questions before Nov. 6.

“I didn’t hear anything about any question,” she said. “Just a lot of mudslinging.”

In February, the state put Newark’s school board back in charge of the district, ending 22 years of state control when the board had only advisory powers. Now, the board is once again responsible for selecting the superintendent and overseeing district spending, hiring, and policymaking.

When districts return to local control, state law mandates that voters be given the choice between an elected or mayor-appointed board. Proponents say that granting mayors control of schools forces them to prioritize education because it hitches their political fortunes to the fate of the school system.

But the vast majority of boards nationally and in New Jersey are elected, which most voters are reluctant to change. Newark’s board has been elected since 1982 — and many observers doubted that voters would trade it for an appointed board just as the city regained control of its schools.

“At this particular time, people have a heightened sense of, ‘No, we’re not letting anyone else be in charge,’” said Mary Bennet, a former Newark principal who led a group that advised the district on its return to local control. With an elected board, voters will know that “what they say counts — and people they elected, they can hold them accountable for how they sit up there and vote.”

The statewide ballot measure that voters approved allows the state to issue $500 million in bonds.

Of that amount, $100 million will go to districts to improve the quality of their schools’ drinking water. In 2016, Newark was forced to replace pipes and water fountains in dozens of schools after their water was found to contain high levels of lead. Because most of that remediation has already been completed, it’s unclear how much of the $100 million Newark would be eligible to receive.

Another $350 million is allocated for county vocational programs and school security upgrades, such as new alarm systems. The bond act does not say how that amount will be divided.

The county vocational-technical schools will use their share of the money to expand programs that let students study trades, such as manufacturing and medical technology, while also earning high-school diplomas. In 2017, about 10 percent of Newark students chose to attend one of Essex County’s four “vo-tech” schools over one of the city’s district or charter high schools.

While the bond act was being crafted, some critics noted that it does not set aside any money for the vocational programs that some district high schools offer. Vocational programs at traditional high schools are open to all students, whereas vo-tech schools screen applicants based on their grades, test scores, and other factors.

Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, said the county schools desperately need more funding to meet the demand from students. Last year, the schools had nearly 17,000 more applicants than available seats.

“Enrollment has been growing,” she said, “and the vocational schools are turning away more students than they can admit.”

This story has been updated with results of the statewide bond referendum.

Election Results

She won. But can Gretchen Whitmer deliver on her promise to transform schools as Michigan’s next governor?

PHOTO: Getty Images
Gretchen Whitmer addressed the 37th United Auto Workers Constitutional Convention in June at Cobo Center in Detroit.

Gretchen Whitmer, a former Democratic Senate minority leader who has cast herself as an ally of the Detroit school district, was elected governor of Michigan on Tuesday after promising to boost school funding across the state.

After leading Republican Bill Schuette consistently throughout the campaign, Whitmer’s showing was so decisive that it took only about an hour after polls closed for her to be declared the winner. Her victory was buoyed by a wave of antipathy toward President Donald Trump and a widespread feeling that Michigan’s schools and roads had foundered under a state government completely controlled by Republicans.

Whitmer could play a key role in resolving the Detroit district’s infrastructure crisis and increasing access to early childhood education. She has also promised consequences for low-performing charter schools run by for-profit companies — schools that compete with the city’s main district for teachers and students.

To make good on her education platform, Whitmer will likely need the support of some members of the Republican party. By the time she declared victory, it was still too early to tell whether Democrats would also make gains in a state legislature that has been solidly Republican in recent years.

On the campaign trail, Whitmer often returned to the fact that Michigan students are lagging behind their peers on several national measures. She offered solutions, including increasing access to pre-K to two free years, but has not been specific on how she plans to pay for some of these efforts.

Whitmer, a Lansing native, has undergraduate and law degrees from Michigan State University. She was in the state legislature for 10 years and has served as a county prosecutor. She lives in East Lansing with her husband and five children.

School leaders in Detroit took to Twitter to celebrate Whitmer’s victory:

For more details on Whitmer’s education positions, scroll down for highlights from our two interviews with her this year, or watch a video of a recent interview here.

Chalkbeat: Do you think Michigan schools have the resources they need to succeed? Do you think they are prepared to serve all students including special needs students? And do you think they are equitably funded?

Whitmer: No and no. We’ve got to do better by our children and that means not punishing third graders who aren’t literate. It means tripling the number of literacy coaches. Having universal early childhood education so every child coming into kindergarten is ready to learn. And giving our heroes who go into public education the support that they need. But it also includes a weighted foundation allowance, which I think goes to the heart of part two of the question. Study after study shows that kids in high-poverty districts cost more to educate. And we have to make a greater investment. That means more nurses and social workers, smaller class sizes, literacy coaches. Our historical funding in Michigan, we’ve got wealthy districts and we’ve got high-poverty districts. I don’t want to just move resources from one district to another. I want to make a greater investment in our kids’ schools by stopping the raids on the school aid fund. Just doing that alone, you could get about $700 million annually back into our education system.

Given that test scores are often driven by socioeconomic and other factors, do you think the state’s current accountability system gives parents a fair and accurate measure of how schools are doing? Do you think the state should use that accountability system to make school closure decisions?

There’s no question that we have to measure to see what’s working and what’s not working. The standardized tests that our kids are taking and taking and taking aren’t being used to really make tweaks in the curriculum or in the teaching or in the investment in our schools. It’s being used as a tool of punishment.

The thought that you punish families by closing down the option that they have, that that’s going to somehow produce a better result is completely backward thinking. When you look at states that are turning around districts, they put more resources in. They don’t abandon families. They don’t make it harder for them to find education for their children.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District, the largest district in the state, recently reported that it needs about $500 million to upgrade its facilities but the state won’t let the district borrow money for renovations like other districts can. What help, if any, should Lansing provide?

When I was in the legislature, I introduced year after year a bill to open up the purposes for which sinking funds can be used. It’s such a limited purpose and there are so many districts that have balances. Now I don’t know what Detroit public schools’ circumstances are on that front in particular. So I don’t know if this would have helped alleviate that. But I’ve been throwing solutions on the table for a long time. I’ve been in the minority and unable to get them signed into law, but that will change after this election. I believe we’ve got to give districts some flexibility to raise the revenue if they can. But it’s on the state to ensure that every child has a good facility in which to learn. No child picks what family, what school district, what zip code they’re born into. But every one of them deserves a great education to level the playing field.

Do you think Michigan needs to make any changes to laws regarding how charter schools are governed?

I do. Michigan is an outlier when you look at other states in the nation that have charter schools. So many of ours are for profit. There are not enough accountability measurements written into the law. The whole theory behind charter schools was that they would be untethered to the traditional oversights and so they would be able to innovate and have better results. But after decades of this, we now have seen they don’t necessarily have better results. Sure, some have had some success, but as a general rule they’re on par with public schools and so we need to have accountability and charters that aren’t working shouldn’t be siphoning taxpayer dollars out of our public schools and they should not be in existence.

What can the state do about the high cost of child care and lack of preschool options for young children?

One of the things that we have proposed is drawing down more resources from the federal government. Right now we could be giving tax breaks to families for childcare and we’re not. We could expand early childhood education, which starting our kids off as 4-year-olds would help alleviate some of that.

Do you believe the cost of higher education is prohibitive? If so, how will you reduce the cost of higher education?

It is. When I went to Michigan State University, the taxpayers I think picked up about 70 percent of the cost of my education. And it was on me and my family to come up with the rest. Now it’s just about flip-flopped. And we’ve had this mindset in the last 20 years that the only way to a career, an honorable career that you can make a good living in, is through a four-year degree. And so we’ve kind of pushed this mantra out there and stigmatized other paths and now we’re paying a price for it.

One of the pieces of my plan is the My Opportunities scholarship, which is a path to a debt-free, two-year degree for every Michigander. We can make that kind of investment toward bringing down the cost of a four-year degree and also opening up paths into the skilled trades. It’s actually not enormously expensive. It’s about $100 million a year. When you’ve got a $50 billion budget, $100 million is a small piece and I think we would find fantastic return on that kind of an investment.

An investigation by Chalkbeat and Bridge found that roughly one in three Detroit elementary school students change schools every year, often because parents are looking for better options. Most of the students who change schools did not move to a different zip code. Is there anything State Government could do to reduce the negative impact of student churn?

They wouldn’t keep looking if they had great schools and good choices. People want to talk about education choices as though that in and of itself is the solution. But there’s no real choice if you don’t have any good options, right? And choice is only a real choice if you have the means and the resources to pursue different school districts. I say let’s stop that mindset. Let’s raise up our school districts. Let’s make sure that we make the investment, that we hold schools accountable, that we shut down schools, particularly, you know, for-profit charter schools that are not delivering good results. We do have to have a Detroit- specific strategy. The governor and his Republican legislature failed at giving some real comprehensive oversight to what’s happening in the city of Detroit. I want to be a partner to Dr. Vitti, to Mayor Duggan, to Detroit families to make sure that we don’t have schools that are just putting money in their pocket and not delivering good results for our kids.