Newark’s Universal Enrollment Plan Put Parents In the Driver’s Seat But The Superintendent Just Bumped Them to the Back of the Bus

Five months ago when the Newark Board of Education voted to continue the universal enrollment plan that allows parents to prioritize where they want to send their children to school, Superintendent Roger León said, “I believe families make decisions where their child should go and I don’t think anyone should change that.”

Or not.

According to reports, Newark Public School District has independently decided to switch things up. Previously, parents who didn’t get their first choice of schools, traditional or charter, could transfer when a seat opened up in their preferred school. But now the district, according to Chalkbeat, has taken that option away: “Families will have to apply for transfers and the district will only grant them in certain cases, such as when a child requires a school with a special education program.”

Why would León “fix” something that isn’t broken? Not only is he trying to cut off parent options to choose the best public school for their children but he’s also thrown a wrench into the whole enrollment system. According to Harry Lee, president of the New Jersey Public Charter School Association, ”if the district denies a family’s request to transfer to a charter school with open seats because the request does not meet the district’s new criteria, that could put the charter school in violation of the state law that says charters must admit any students they have space for.”

“Legally, NPS does not have the statutory authority to prevent a student from attending a charter school that has an open seat,” he said, referring to Newark Public Schools. “This policy flies in the face of what’s permitted through charter law.”

León claims he is disallowing transfers, even when empty seats exist, because his priority is “stability.” He said, “definitely you should want to have your child in whatever school you want your child in. But moving your child from one school to another school to another school to another school is not creating stability.”

I beg to differ.

First of all, parents don’t move their kids three times a year (as his statement implies). Their first choice might be, say, the charter called North Star Academy, where 68% of third graders meet or exceed expectations in reading. But let’s say, instead, that there were no seats at North Star so the enrollment system assigns their child to the district’s Abington Avenue School, where 0% of third graders meet or exceed expectations in reading. (It might be slightly higher than 0% but when the numbers are extremely low the DOE uses an asterick “to protect student privacy.”) If a space opens up at North Star for a third-grader, under the old rules the child would be eligible for that slot if he or she is at the top of the wait list. But under Leon’s new rules, that child will remain at Abington, despite the open seat, because the district will deny their request for a transfer.

Great system! For everyone but Newark families.

Word on the street is that the district may have just screwed up the algorithm (although León expressed anti-charter sentiments earlier this year). Also, this isn’t the only glitch with the universal enrollment system. From Chalkbeat:

Lee said multiple charter school leaders he’s spoken with have reported other issues with this year’s match process. For instance, some students who ranked the schools first on their applications were not matched with the schools even when seats were available, Lee said. And some students who live outside the city were placed in schools ahead of Newark residents, despite state rules giving residents priority.

These are problems that can be fixed. All it would take is leadership that values student academic growth and parent autonomy. Right now that leadership is absent in Newark.

What do you think?

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