The federal intervention in the state-operated Newark school system is, in fact, a victory both for the parents who sued to obtain it and, ultimately, for the cause of educational equity. But it may not immediately help the children who were hurt by the Christie Administration’s clumsy and misguided efforts at “reform.”
Parents and their lawyers held a press conference to hail the agreement and they used terms like “ground-breaking” and ” break-through” and “important”–and they weren’t wrong. They weren’t wrong because:
1. If the settlement is considered in a national context–and PULSE is part of a network of parent activists–then this represents the first time community organizers have forced the federal government, itself a bastion of reforms like school closing and charter expansion, to admit it may have contributed to practices that actually harmed children. Similar complaints have been filed in behalf of children and parents in New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia–but none have yet been so successful as Newark’s effort.
2. The federal intervention raises a cloud over the entire New Jersey experiment in state takeovers as a means of improving urban school districts–it has taken over Jersey City, Paterson, and Camden as well. Not only has the state failed to markedly improve learning in the state’s largest school districts it runs, it also may have actually harmed children through its efforts. If not, why would the federal government demand remediation?
If nothing else, the parents have given the lie to assertions of competence by both federal and state bureaucrats. The federal intervention in Newark may have forever ended the notion that state and federal governments know best how to fix schools.
But what about the Newark children affected by state-imposed reforms?
“This is an important first step,” said Sharon Smith, president and co-founder of PULSE, the parents organization that brought two federal civil rights complaints against the state operation of the public schools. “It is a victory for all of Newark’s children and parents.”
That’s what it looks like. The federal intervention requires the state-operated school district to identify all children affected by school closings, conversions to charters, and other practices. Once identified, the district has to determine whether the children faced “adverse effects” from the “reforms.” If they did, then the district has to remediate the injury by the end of the school year.
Oscar Lopez, the Washington DC-based attorney who represented PULSE in its complaints, said the injury to children could take many forms. Failure to learn. Disciplinary problems. Lack of access to extracurricular activities. Provision of special education.
Some parents believed the inquiry should go beyond that. Daryn Martin, a member of PULSE’s advisory board, told the press conference that the federal intervention would have no way of helping children “who have left the system because of ‘One Newark,'” the state’s controversial enrollment plan.
“And what about the jobs were lost by parents who couldn’t get their children into schools near their homes?” he asked.
A bigger problem, the parents conceded, is that a school distrct where officials denied harming children in response to the federal complaint is being trusted to identify the children who might have been harmed.
Smith conceded her organization’s members were disappointed because, in the negotiations between the state-operated district and the education department’s Office of Civil Rights, “parents had no input.” The settlement was between the two levels of the government, not between the parents and the district.
“But this will be a continuing process,” Smith said. “We intend to be at the table a nd monitoring the progress of this agreement.”