Newark charter schools say district sent them fewer students this year, violating ‘verbal agreement’

The fate of a system that allows Newark families to use a single application to apply to most traditional and charter schools in the city is in question after several charter operators accused the district of misusing the system to lower their enrollments.

A group of seven charter operators sent Superintendent Roger León a letter last week saying the district sent them “significantly fewer students” than they had requested, in the process denying the schools the funding attached to those students. Through a spokesperson, León said the district simply assigned the schools the maximum number of students allowed by their state-approved charters.

The dispute centers on Newark’s citywide enrollment system, now in its sixth year, which enables families to use a single application to apply to more than 70 schools run by the district and participating charter school operators. Designed to standardize and streamline admissions across schools, the system relies on a computer program controlled by the district.

Participation in the system, called Newark Enrolls, is voluntary for charter schools; this year, 11 of 18 charter operators, including the city’s largest, signed on. If the operators believe they will no longer get a fair shake through Newark Enrolls, they could potentially stop participating and establish a separate, charter-only system — a possibility some operators are already considering.

“It just feels like that’s the direction we’re headed in,” said a charter school leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity, adding that several charter operators met Monday to discuss alternatives to Newark Enrolls. “What do we need to start doing to plan our own enrollment system for next year?”

Newark is one of only a handful of cities across the country that uses a common application for traditional and charter schools, rather than having each school handle its own admissions. Under the system, families apply to up to eight schools, then a computer program matches each student to one school.

Proponents of so-called universal enrollment systems like Newark’s say they spare families from having to apply separately to multiple schools, which favors parents with more time and resources to devote to the process. By putting the district or a third party in charge of admissions, the systems also prevent individual schools from excluding hard-to-serve students, supporters say.

But critics often reject those arguments. They say universal systems are intended, at least in part, to funnel students and funding out of the district by making it easier for families to apply to charter schools.

Charters that choose to participate in the systems do get access to more potential applicants than they might if families had to apply to each school separately. But those schools also run the risk that their enrollments could rise or fall depending on how districts or third parties decide to manage the system — a scenario that appears to be playing out in Newark now.

Under Newark’s previous two superintendents, who tended to support the growth of charter schools, the district sent those schools extra students each year. That process of “overmatching” is designed to offset student attrition over the summer so that, by the fall, schools end up with roughly the number of students granted them by the state.

León, a longtime Newark Public Schools official who became superintendent in July, sought to end the practice of overmatching. Instead, the district would send charter schools only the exact number of students that their charters allow.

Some charter leaders pushed back against the proposal, arguing that the change would actually leave them with fewer students than they are permitted to enroll. Ultimately, the participating charter schools signed an agreement with the district that did not explicitly ban overmatching nor guarantee that it would continue.

However, the April 25 letter to León from charter leaders insists that the district “verbally agreed not to break from past practices around student matching and placement.” Despite that agreement, the leaders wrote, the district did not assign the schools the extra students they requested for the 2019-20 school year — a break with past practice — even though there was “sufficient demand” from families to attend the charter schools.

“This undermatching has ramifications for our school operations and budgets and will impede our ability to equitably serve Newark students,” says the letter obtained by Chalkbeat. “It also denies hundreds of families their top priority school and will likely lead to more dissatisfied families requesting to change their match at the Family Support Center, increased student mobility over the summer and in the fall, and less reliability in rosters at all schools.”

The letter was signed by the leaders of several charter schools: Achieve, Marion P. Thomas, M.E.T.S., People’s Preparatory, Philip’s Academy, Roseville, and University Heights. It was also endorsed by two charter advocacy groups, the Newark Charter School Fund and the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.

Chalkbeat reached out to all the signatories for comment. The only person to respond on the record was Damion Frye, the interim lead administrator of M.E.T.S., which operates a charter school in Newark and one in Jersey City. In a brief phone call, he said the district sent the school fewer students “than usual” and that the school is still “trying to figure out funding and everything.”

A different charter school was matched with about 60 fewer students than it requested, according to sources familiar with the situation. And a third got 30 fewer students than it sought, according to its leader, who requested anonymity because the letter’s signers are still trying to work out a solution with the district.

Now, the leader said, that school will begin trying to tap students from its waiting list. In effect, that means contacting families who applied to the charter but were matched to different schools and asking them if they wish to abandon their assigned schools. Former district officials have said that one reason for sending charter schools extra students was to avoid causing instability at traditional schools as charters pull in additional students from district rosters.

In response to questions, a district spokeswoman referred Chalkbeat to the written agreement between charter operators and the district, adding that the number of students matched to charter schools this year “was in accordance with their charter.” In other words, overmatching has ceased — the district declined to send charters any students above their state-approved maximum in order to account for attrition.

While the spokeswoman did not elaborate, observers noted this strict interpretation of charter rules could benefit the district financially: Lower charter school enrollment could translate into more students and funding for the city’s traditional schools.

“I send you less students means I send you less money,” said a district principal, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “That could be the ultimate plan.”