The title of this article has a one-word answer: money. In this shocking article, journalist Owen Davis explains how the expansion of charters in Newark is driven by two factors:
1) the availability of millions of dollars in federal school construction bonds that have been showered on the charter schools but not the public schools;
2) the Chris Christie administration’s decision to withhold funding specifically designated for the repair and renovation of existing public schools.
Put these two factors together and you get a city with gleaming charter schools and crumbling public schools.
The story is framed around the struggle of a family and a community to keep its public school, Hawthorne, from being shuttered. They eventually win a one-year reprieve, but it feels temporary. The governor and some very wealthy people plan to turn Newark into a free market of schools, and part of their plan is to let them rot, then close them down.
Here is a key element:
“When a charter school moves into a new building, it’s not unusual to see millions of dollars poured into renovations ranging from structural repairs to slick paint jobs. In the case of a school like Hawthorne, plugging the leaky ceilings and safeguarding against mold would likely be top priorities.
“The 2009 federal stimulus authorized states to allocate $22 billion in qualified school construction bonds (QSCBs), which allow cash-strapped schools to secure interest-free bond financing. Banks that finance school construction receive subsidies from the feds equivalent to some benchmark interest rate around 5 percent. Banks can pull in a tidy profit, as can the motley cast of counsels and intermediaries who ink the deals.
“Of the $440 million in QSCBs New Jersey received, nearly three-quarters have been approved – and so far, every penny has gone to charters. TEAM Academy alone gobbled up $138 million. This exclusive allocation of QSCBs to charter schools is highly unusual. California and Texas, for comparison, each allocated less than one-fifth of their QSCBs to charter schools.”
But while all the new money was dedicated to charter schools, state money for repairs dried up:
“Just as New Jersey earmarked its federal school bonds for charters, Christie was busy slashing education budgets and hobbling the department charged with repairing needy urban schools, the School Development Authority (SDA).
“Established in 2000 to remedy stark funding disparities, the SDA controls billions of dollars for construction in disadvantaged districts. When Christie entered office, he shrunk the department’s staff by 30 percent and restricted its outlays to a trickle.
“Basically there wasn’t any work being done,” says Moriah Kinberg of Healthy Schools Now, a coalition that advocates for school repairs. While over 700 projects broke ground in the decade before, not a single project was initiated and completed between 2010 and 2013.”
Newark elected Ras Baraka as its mayor to protest the Christie plan to eliminate public schools. But Christie doesn’t care. He is still in charge of the schools. He is the master.