Lead the way, Newark schools

The new teachers contract in Newark has caused widespread celebration. It has earned praise from New Jersey’s governor and education commissioner, Newark’s mayor and superintendent, local and national labor leaders and many others. There seems to be a consensus that a new day has dawned for public education in this troubled city.

If state leaders are willing to seize the opportunity, this may be a turning point in the nation’s decades-long effort to reform urban schooling.

The history of urban school improvement efforts, however, suggests that we might temper our enthusiasm. The side of the road is littered with much-ballyhooed but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to fix failing inner-city schools.

Yet if state leaders are willing to seize the opportunity, this may be a turning point in the nation’s decades-long effort to reform urban schooling.

The new contract is an enormous improvement over its predecessors. It reforms compensation by prioritizing effectiveness instead of seniority. It speeds the implementation of improved evaluations and enables change in the lowest-performing schools. It allows for greater school-level decision-making and removes bureaucratic barriers to reform.

The district will now be better positioned to attract and retain the best educators. District leaders will have the flexibility to make decisions that meet kids’ needs. New Jersey residents will have greater confidence that state, local and philanthropic funding will be spent in the right ways.

Accordingly, the agreement has spawned a remarkable degree of strange-bedfellow harmony, bringing together management and labor, left and right. Local union president Joseph Del Grosso and national AFT leader Randi Weingarten cheered the contract. State superintendent Chris Cerf and district superintendent Cami Anderson lauded its bold nature. At a signing event, Republican Gov. Chris Christie called Democratic Mayor Cory Booker an “indispensable partner” and said, “This is the most gratifying day of my governorship.”

Today, this district has everything it could ask for: a reform-oriented teachers contract, a new state law on tenure and evaluation, funding twice the national average, the $100 million Mark Zuckerberg donation, partnerships with leading nonprofit organizations, freedom from a politically motivated school board, a tough local superintendent, a reform-friendly mayor, the nation’s best state superintendent and an incomparably bold governor.

So we should happily call this the beginning of a new era. But we must also declare an end to the excuses. If the district can’t generate better results here and now, it never will. The governor should say so — and then put the district on the clock.

In years past, this was never an option. The district was the only game in town. Leaders had to put all of their eggs in the district’s basket. There was no “or else.”

Said simply, chartering can replace the district. And it can happen in Newark.

So when results came up short — as they always did — leaders had no recourse. And the stubborn district, having weathered another passing storm of reform, would carry on as before.

But now, at long last, an “or else” exists. Thanks to the example set by charter schooling, we know that the school district as we know it is expendable.

In New Orleans, three-quarters of students attend nondistrict charter schools. In Detroit and Washington, it’s approaching 50 percent. In a dozen other cities, it’s more than 25 percent.

Said simply, chartering can replace the district. And it can happen in Newark.

Charters already have a 17 percent market share in Newark. Extremely successful charter networks like KIPP and Uncommon Schools operate in the city, and they are prepared to expand. The district has numerous under-enrolled buildings, meaning charters have space to grow.

Since the state has complete control of the district and the state Education Department is New Jersey’s lone charter authorizer, the state, at the governor’s direction, could lead the transition from a district-based to a charter-based system.

Let’s all hope that the numerous arrows now in Newark’s quiver will enable that district to drastically and lastingly improve student achievement.

But we cannot allow ourselves to look back 10 years from now — like so many before us have — and realize that the district devoured another set of reforms and remains as low-performing, obstreperous and powerful as ever.

Christie has shown that he is committed to helping that district improve. But for the sake of today’s students and tomorrow’s, there must be a Plan B.

By putting the district on the clock, Christie can offer a brighter future to Newark’s residents and, in the process, emerge as the nation’s most aggressive and forward-thinking education reform governor.

This article appeared in the New York Daily News on November 26, 2012.

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