Fed probe into Newark’s vision for charter schools mirrors investigations in other cities

 Bragaw Avenue School (K-8) in Newark will be taken over by a charter school operator.

Bragaw Avenue School (K-8) in Newark will be taken over by a charter school operator.

The federal civil-rights investigation of the “One Newark” plan for reorganizing that city’s schools is part of a campaign that is taking place in a dozen cities nationwide, where school closures in urban districts are being contested.

The investigation was announced in front of Newark City hall yesterday; advocates from across the country, including New Orleans and Chicago, were in attendance.

“It’s almost like I was listening to what was going on in New Orleans,” said Debra Jones, an advocate from New Orleans who made the trip north, her first to New Jersey. “The strangest thing is any of this never happens in Caucasian communities,” she said.

The announcement of the investigation, responding to a complaint filed in May by a group of Newark activists, drew subdued reactions yesterday from the Christie administration and the state-appointed administration in Newark.

Superintendent Cami Anderson, the architect of the “One Newark” plan, did not directly respond, but a statement from her chief of staff, Charlotte Hitchcock, said that the district would fully cooperate.

“The District has and will continue to fully cooperate with all aspects of the U.S. DOE’s investigation,” read the statement. “While the initiation of an investigation is a routine matter, we take all allegations seriously. We remain steadfast in our belief that the One Newark plan is not discriminatory and is, in fact, predicated on the goals of equity and excellent educational options for all of our students regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or learning ability.”

The state’s acting education commissioner, David Hespe, also said that he would cooperate with federal authorities in looking into whether One Newark was discriminatory.

“We were aware that the complaint was filed several weeks ago, and we plan to fully cooperate with the investigation,” read the statement from Michael Yaple, the department’s communications director.

“The U.S. Department of Education has a specific process that it follows whenever a complaint is filed, and it would be inappropriate to debate the issue in the press or public while they are looking into the matter.”

The basis of the complaint is that the reorganization that either closes or turns over to charters a quarter of the city’s schools is targeting African-American neighborhoods. It said that while the Newark district as a whole is about 50 percent African-American in enrollment, those affected by the reorganization are 86 percent African-American.

The complaint highlighted four schools slated for closure or turnover to charter operators.

“All four schools affected had an African-American enrollment rate of over 77%,” read the complaint. “In comparison, none of the schools had higher than a 1.4% White enrollment rate. In fact, two of the four schools had absolutely no White students.

“For a raw number comparison, only five White students were directly affected by school closures in 2012-13, but 1,094 African-American students were affected.’

It’s a cause that has been taken up in a dozen cities where advocates have filed civil-rights complaints under federal Title VI provisions. The effort has been led by the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project, whose lawyers were on hand for the press conference yesterday.

“At this point, they will interview public officials and also reach out to the complainants to ask further questions,” said Oscar Lopez, an attorney with Advancement Project.

“What we’re hoping that in bringing these actions in New Orleans and Chicago, too, that will put some pressure on them to act faster,” he said. “The resolution would be an agreement with the Newark public schools, and if they don’t reach an agreement, it would be a referral to the Department of Justice.”

The federal department’s Office of Civil Rights receives close to 10,000 complaints a year, more than half about issues involving students with disabilities. It said in a 2012 report that 90 percent of those complaints are resolved within six months through agreements between the parties.

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NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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