A conversation with investigative journalist Owen Davis
EduShyster: You have a fascinating new story out about how real estate concerns are increasingly driving school closures and charter school expansion in Newark, NJ. Can you give us the 15 second version?
Owen Davis: Basically incentives created by the federal government to help all schools have been earmarked for charters in a convoluted way that ends up hobbling district schools.
EduShyster: Your story chronicles the fate of Newark’s Hawthorne Avenue School, which had been slated for closure by the Newark Public Schools, not because it was failing but because it was falling apart physically.
Davis: Hawthorne is a school that probably made the best effort of any of the schools in Newark to play by the rules and make the expected gains and its reward is to be turned into a charter school. The reasons behind that don’t have much to do with education, but with financial and real estate concerns. The crazy thing about this is that the money is there to fix the school, but the district has decided that the more viable option is to convert Hawthorne to a charter school which can get the needed repairs done with its access to more creative and flexible bond financing. The district, by the way, has since backed off from this plan.
EduShyster: One of the parents you feature in the story happens to be named Choice. Of course the irony is that as a public school parent she gets to choose between a choice that no longer exists or the choice that’s already been made for her.
Davis: When reform advocates talk about parent choice in Newark, they always mention the 51% of parents who selected charter schools, but that ignores the choice of the other 49% of parents. Their choice isn’t being honored by the expansion of charter schools and the diversion of resources from public schools to charter schools.
EduShyster: In other words, Ms. Choice has the choice to vote with her feet.
Davis: Something like that.
EduShyster: You make the point that the playing field between district and charter schools in Newark can’t be considered level because Governor Chris Christie has effectively tipped the scales for charters. In retrospect do you regret using that metaphor?
Davis: Maybe *rigging the system* would have been a better way to put it. My point was that by systematically underfunding the public sector while extending market incentives to private actors, the Christie administration has essentially placed its thumb on the scale for charters. What’s fascinating and disturbing about this story, by the way, is that no one I talked to had any idea how or even if a state-controlled district like Newark can even apply for qualified school construction bonds.
EduShyster: Newark is one of a growing number of school districts that has caught *portfolio fever* and views schools as assets to be managed. But district officials take that view even further and seem to regard themselves as real estate developers. I’m thinking of the astonishing statement by Newark Public Schools director of strategy Gabrielle Wyatt that the district sees charter funds as a way of *flipping neighborhoods.*
Davis: When you have people with access to a lot of money and power talking about flipping a neighborhood, it certainly raises eyebrows. The district would like to see an expansion of the kind of development that’s been happening in downtown Newark with Teachers Village, a $150 million project to bring in three charter schools, a number of retail outlets and teacher housing. The main developer for the project, by the way, happens to sit on the board of Teach for America in Newark, which is bringing in more and more teachers to teach at these charter schools. Undoubtedly a project like this brings resources to a part of the city, but at what cost? And who gets a say regarding what gets built and who has to leave the neighborhood once it gentrifies?
EduShyster: Presumably there are already people living in Newark’s South Ward, for example. What happens to them if the Newark Public Schools succeeds in *work[ing] collaboratively to flip a neighborhood*?
Davis: That’s the question that people in the South Ward are asking. Residents see that there are aspects of their neighborhood that are attractive to developers—their proximity to rail and highway, for example—and they worry that, based on what the district is saying, that their neighborhood is going to be *flipped* using these development means .
EduShyster: The charter schools that are expanding in Newark emphasize very strict discipline and an ethos of submission by an overwhelmingly minority student body. When I think about the money and power that’s lining up behind the expansion of these schools in a community that effectively has no say over the future of its own education system, I get a little nervous.
Davis: I’ve spent time substitute teaching in no excuses charter schools that are part of the same networks that I’m now writing about. When you see a mostly young, white staff excitedly parading around and enforcing extreme discipline on an entirely black student population with posters of MLK and Malcolm X on the walls, it produces an extreme sense of discomfort. It’s just bizarre to consider how the rhetoric of civil rights is being used to push these systems that, when you take a step back, you realize are not the ideal of the open free progressive public school. If that’s the vision that these reformers have of emancipation or progress, then there’s a real problem there.
EduShyster: This is a Newark story obviously, but it’s also a story about charter expansion and the test score mania that now seems to color everything.
Davis: There are all of these reports written about the charter school bond market, which is now a $5 billion market. Analysts talk about how it’s *recession-proof,* and when they talk about what makes charter schools good assets, they talk about test scores. And for the charters themselves, increasing test scores is a matter of financial life—they need higher scores in order to continue to exist, to upgrade, to expand. You can clearly trace the way that influences classroom practices, ties into the perverse incentives to raise test scores, the kind of student population you want to have for good test scores.
Davis: Funny you should ask. One thing I discovered is that the law firm of Wolff and Samson serves as a counsel for all of the bond deals between charter schools and banks. David Samson was until recently the head of the Port Authority was forced to resign over the Bridgegate scandal.
EduShyster: This last question is from the people, well, from one person: Camden teacher Keith Benson, a regular contributor to this blog. He wants to know when you’re coming to Camden.
Davis: Soon I hope. Let’s just say that New Jersey is giving me plenty to write about these days.
EduShyster: I just want to say that sharp young journalists like you who are really digging into the muck and murk of education reform really give me hope for the future.
Davis: Thanks so much. When I was first getting interested in education, I was reading EduShyster and you gave me some early support. I very much appreciate it.
Owen Davis is a journalist who focuses on education reform and education justice movements. He lives in New York. Follow him @of_davis.