A small but vocal grass roots organization in Newark has won a major, if limited, victory for city school parents and children hurt by the so-called “reforms” imposed by the state under Gov. Chris Christie—including school closings, the “One Newark” enrollment plan, and other practices. The federal government is demanding action to find and help those students.
The state had closed, re-sited, privatized or otherwise changed the operation of 18 public schools in a way that disrupted the schooling of thousands of children in the last three years. The organization, PULSE—for Parents Unified for Local School Education—has persuaded the US Education Department’s civil rights office to force the state-operated school district to 1) identify every student affected by the changes, 2) determine whether child was hurt in any way, and 3) remediate that injury within six months. All of it under federal supervision.
In a prepared statement, Sharon Smith, PULSE’s president and co-founder, called the settlement of her organization’s federal civil rights cases “ an important victory and first step on the road to justice for students and families in Newark Public Schools. It is the clear result of the hard work of parents, students and community members who refused to give up.”
The settlement, technically between Newark’s state-operated school system and the US Department of Education, does have its limits. It does not reverse the school closures or end the so-called “One Newark” enrollment plan. That had been a demand from PULSE and other organizations and political leaders, including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and the city’s elected school board.
But it does commit the state operated system to determine whether children had been hurt by the plans and to provide what remediation might be necessary—all of it done under federal monitoring.
Specifically, the Christie Administration’s regime in Newark—run by former state education commissioner Christopher Cerf—must:
- Assess the academic impact on children who were forced to transfer as a consequence of closing or otherwise changing the operation of a public school.
- Determine whether children have been adversely affected by the transportation required by the enrollment practices, including their ability to participate in extracurricular activities.
- Determine whether schools—including charter and other privatized schools—actually were prepared to receive the children affected by the mass transfers; if any children were not properly served, any damage to their educational careers must be remediated.
- The district also must review the placement of special needs children and determine whether any were hurt by failing to provide proper facilities. Those adverse effects also must be remediated.
Perhaps the biggest limitation on the settlement is a technical but important one—it is a “voluntary resolution” of PULSE’s complaints but PULSE had no say in the settlement and has no continuing role in ensuring the Newark school district.
The documents also don’t mention “One Newark” and limit affected students to those who were transferred at times not considered as “natural” transitions–such as from eighth grade to high school or starting kindergarten. That could limit the impact of the settlement’s reach in helping “One Newark” victims.
Determining compliance also will be a big problem. The deadlines the state administration in Newark must follow are very tight—one, for providing the feds with an assessment plan, is tomorrow. Cerf actually agreed to the settlement Nov. 9 but the federal government didn’t release it until a few days ago.
All the remediation must be completed within six months. So, say, if a learning disabled child was proven to be harmed by the Newark schools’ operations, that child must be identified, subjected to an assessment of possibly injury, and that injury must be remediated by the end of the school year.
Some of the possible injuries simply cannot be remediated. For example, the agreement considered failure to participate in sports a possible “adverse effect”—but there is no way a sports season can be replayed.
Also, the school district is facing a budget shortfall–and, conceivably could run out of money before the end of the school year even without the extra added expense of a major assessment of the effects of “One Newark” and school closings. The “voluntary resolution” with the federal government provides no clue as to how the district will pay for the changes it is demanding.
PULSE has scheduled a press conference for Tuesday to discuss the resolution.
The full text of PULSE’s statement follows:
NEWARK – The Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education has announced a groundbreaking resolution agreement with Newark Public Schools (“NPS”) that seeks to protect students negatively impacted by school closures. The Agreement comes after a multi-year federal investigation into the negative effects school closures have on students of color and students with disabilities. The Agreement seeks to resolve federal civil rights complaints filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by the local grassroots-led organization Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSE). The most recent complaint, filed in May 2014 with Advancement Project, a DC-based civil rights organization, raised alarms over the discriminatory impact of the One Newark Plan, which resulted in seven school closures and the takeover of five existing neighborhood schools by charter operators, disproportionately affecting African-American students.
The Agreement outlines an assessment and reporting plan with which NPS must comply in order to remedy any adverse effects experienced by students as a result of school closures and conversions to charter schools. Specifically, NPS must identify all students that were adversely affected in regards to academic performance, attendance, discipline, transportation, safety, overcrowding, accessibility of facilities/resources, and special education services, and NPS must remedy the harms caused to those students. The Agreement applies to all students affected by school closures and conversions to charter schools that occurred at the end of the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years. NPS’ failure to comply with this Agreement could result in a legal action by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“This is an important victory and first step on the road to justice for students and families in Newark Public Schools. It is the clear result of the hard work of parents, students and community members who refused to give up”,” said PULSE Co-Founder Sharon Smith. “In the past three years, we filed two Title VI complaints, held a boycott, our students had sit-ins and walkouts against the One Newark Plan, we marched to the Department of Education during the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education to urge federal intervention, and we elected a Mayor that called the One Newark Plan radical and disruptive and has implemented a proposal for community schools in the areas hit hardest by school closures,” said Smith.
“School closures have had a devastating impact on our children, families, and community,” said Tawanda Sheard, one of the parents who joined PULSE in filing the Title VI complaint on behalf of her daughter in elementary school. “I am excited about the agreement and hope it helps not just my daughter, but students across Newark.”
The “One Newark Plan” and the state takeover of the public school system in Newark reflect the school closure crisis sweeping the nation. In New York, Chicago, New Orleans and in many other predominately Black communities across the country, education “reform” policies are destroying public schools by either closing them, turning them over to private management companies, firing teachers, and/or squeezing education budgets. “These education “experiments” are almost exclusively imposed on our Black and Brown children. In the name of reform, corporate profiteers and their agents have closed and privatized community schools across this country, resulting in deep disparities and human rights violations. Today’s Agreement is a step to right that wrong—a step that should be quickly taken in other cities where similar violations are occurring” said Jitu Brown, Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, a national coalition of grassroots organizations fighting against school closures and privatization in over twenty cities.
“Over 20 years, NPS has been under state control and our community has been deprived of the right to make decisions regarding our children’s education. I urge state and local officials to listen to the parents, students and community members most impacted when making decisions and implement a system that is supportive and community-based,” Smith said.