Peter Moskowitz/Al Jazeera America
Newark high school students walk out to protest new charter-friendly plan
Newark is one of several cities where students have protested decreasing
budgets and an increase in charter schools
April 3, 2014 5:34PM ET
by Peter Moskowitz @ptrmsk
NEWARK, NJ. – Holding bullhorns and signs – some with the word “liar” in bold
letters above the silhouettes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and
state-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson – hundreds of middle and
high school students walked out of schools and into the streets of this
economically struggling city on Thursday, demanding that the city
administration reverse course on a plan that could lead to some schools closing
or downsizing, teachers being let go and charter schools moving into public
“They said (the plan) will make Newark schools better,” said Jose Leonard, a
16-year-old at Arts High School. “They’ve been saying that for 20 years and we
haven’t seen anything. It’s like they don’t care about the students.”
The students say they’re fed up with what they see as an intentional defunding
of Newark’s traditional public schools in favor of charter schools – which are
run by nonprofit organizations or private companies using taxpayer dollars.
They’re not alone.
The Newark protests are the latest in a spate of recent backlashes against
school budget cuts and the introduction of charter schools in cash-strapped
municipalities across the nation.
An analysis from the Center for Budget and Policy priorities estimates that
states are spending 28 percent less on average per student than they were in
2008. The United States saw a surge in charter schools during the same period,
with enrollment increasing by 80 percent in the last five years, according to
the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (PDF).
Given those big changes, experts say it’s no coincidence that in the last year,
students, teachers and other community members have protested in cities across
In February, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett canceled his appearance at a
Philadelphia public school after students and teachers at the school planned a
protest over his budget cuts, which forced many of the city’s schools to cut
all extracurricular activities. In Oklahoma, an estimated 25,000 converged on
the capitol earlier this week to protest low school funding. Protests have also
been held in Oregon and in Camden, N.J.
The protests in Newark aren’t new, either. Last year, high schools students
formed the Newark Students Union and held a protest in the city’s downtown
area, followed by another in March of this year.
Advocates of traditional public schools say that the protests are likely to
continue, as more school districts grapple with how to use their
ever-decreasing funds to adequately educate their children.
“What’s happening in Newark follows a national pattern as we see states fund
schools less than they did before the (2008) recession started,” said Jeff
Bryant, a fellow at progressive education nonprofit organization Campaign for
While the situation in Newark may be part of a trend, it’s also unique and
uniquely dire. The school system faces a $100 million budget gap, and about 30
percent of Newark’s 3,200 teachers will be laid off in the next three years if
something doesn’t change, according to the Newark Public Schools District.
Hardly anyone is arguing that the situation doesn’t need to be addressed, but
what has caused protests over the past year is the direction in which that
those changes are heading.
Newark superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled her “One Newark” plan in December,
which would make it easier to fire underperforming teachers and principals,
increase the number of charter schools in the city and use public buildings to
house charter schools, among other measures.
Anderson’s supporters say such reforms are the only way to fix Newark’s
“This doesn’t have to be ‘us vs. them’ opposition,” said New Jersey Charter
Schools Association President Carlos Perez. “It needs to be a question of “is
this a good school and one addressing the needs of kids or not?”
Some protesters seemed to at least partially agree with that notion on
Wednesday, saying the debate shouldn’t be over the merits of charters, but why
charters are getting an ever-bigger chunk of an ever-decreasing pool of money
“This is the worst it’s been here by far,” said Sheila Montague, a language
arts professor who has taught in the Newark school system for 20 years. “People
don’t (necessarily) have a problem with charter schools, but with the lack of
quality and equality in our education.”