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Is Newark Repeating DC’s Mistakes?

Remember Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to improve public schools in Newark? According to a recent article in USA Today, $99 million of it is still in the bank. The article offers some reasons why there have been problems getting school improvement efforts off the ground in Newark. For example, the city’s public schools have been without a superintendent since February.

But most of the article describes what seems to be a disconnect between those in charge of these efforts and those who must implement them – parents, students and teachers. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who is charged with making changes and has raised $43 million to match Zuckerberg’s funds, has been criticized for not revealing enough about the sources of that money. He has also been criticized for spending a million dollars on a survey of parents’ thoughts on school reform. And his legal authority to implement changes has been challenged.

Booker believes that Newark is ready for his brand of change, which includes more charter schools, longer school days and support for efforts to weaken teacher and principal tenure rules.  But troubling to me: His quote, “Now, from the governor ‘s office to the school board, you have a lot of alignment on what it ‘s going to take to make those reforms.” 

I do not doubt that. But where is mention of those who change will impact most – the parents, students and teachers who will have to live it every day? At public meetings, it appears these stakeholders are opposing the proposed changes. And as Shavar Jeffries (president of the school advisory board, an elected oversight committee that advises on, but ultimately does not control, district decisions) points out regarding discussions of school reform: “These are people ‘s babies, and you don ‘t just make decisions about people ‘s babies without engaging and having some sort of communication with the parents.”  (emphasis added)

An excellent point. Of course, the need for better communication with stakeholders is not unique to Newark. A recent report from the United Way on the public’s views on education found that “everyday people” feel disconnected from their public schools.  And because of that disconnect, they are concerned that those running them aren’t in touch with the issues that affect children and families. In that national survey, Jeffries’ comment was echoed – someone suggested the need to “open lines of communication between the ones who make the policy and the ones who the policy affects.” 

Americans want that communication. A recent survey by the Brookings Institution on the state of education news found that Americans want more information on their local schools, particularly on teacher performance, student academic performance, school crime or violence, curricula, school finances and school reform. 

And we have examples of what happens in places that don’t respect the community’s desire for information. Consider recent school improvement efforts in Washington, DC. As a DC resident, it is my personal opinion that the reason Mayor Fenty lost his reelection bid was his (and his school chancellor appointee Michelle Rhee’s) approach to school reform – a top-down approach that made many in the community think “This is being done to us, without our consent” and created a distrust that doomed most improvement efforts before they even started. From this article, at least, it seems something similar is happening in Newark.

But I am sure that Booker is aware of the importance of community communications. He is very intelligent and more a part of the community he is trying to reach than Rhee or Fenty ever were (he spent years living in a public housing community in the city, organizing residents and learning more about the issues impacting the day-to-day life of the city’s poor). While this post questions the situation in Newark, I am actually very impressed by him personally. I have seen him speak and find him an extremely passionate man who cares deeply about his community. So why the disconnect between his rhetoric and reality? 

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