chalkbeat New Jersey Children's Foundation in the news

By Patrick Wall,

As some Newark charter schools clash with the district over their shared enrollment system, a new charter-friendly nonprofit is hoping to play peacemaker.

The head of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, a Newark-based nonprofit that launched last week with a goal of fostering district-charter collaboration, said he will try to help ease the tension between the two camps in a bid to protect the citywide enrollment system.

“I think we can play a diplomacy role in making sure that good policy that is in the best interest of children and families can stick here,” said Kyle Rosenkrans, the group’s executive director, adding that some “friction” between charter operators and the district’s new leadership around enrollment is inevitable. “That’s where we want to put in some elbow grease and help out.”

The new group’s emphasis on cross-sector cooperation and diplomacy reflect a new reality in Newark, where charter school growth is no longer assured, and the district is locally run.

During the past decade, Newark’s charter sector flourished with the help of a charter-boosting governor and mayor and deep-pocketed national donors. Those same politicians and funders — former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, former Mayor Cory Booker (now a U.S. senator making a run for president), and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — also orchestrated an overhaul of Newark’s state-controlled school district that elicited a furious backlash from many residents and educators.

Today, all that has changed. New Jersey’s new Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka have both questioned the need for new charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. That has fueled expectations that the charter sector, which now educates over a third of Newark students, may see its growth slow.

And, last year, the state returned control of the district to the city’s elected school board, which promptly chose Roger León — a district graduate and career educator — as superintendent.

Those new dynamics demand a new approach, says Rosenkrans, even if his vision for Newark — families choosing from a diverse menu of high-quality traditional and charter schools — is not so different from the one pushed by pro-charter advocates before him.

“I’m reading the tea leaves here,” said Rosenkrans, a former official in the KIPP New Jersey charter network. “You don’t need somebody throwing bombs and exacerbating divisions. We have a different structure — and living together is an essential reality.”

Rosenkrans’ group is bankrolled by The City Fund, a new organization trying to spread what is sometimes called the “portfolio model” to cities, where charter and traditional schools compete for students, schools are free to operate as they see fit, and poor-performing schools are closed. Rosenkrans said he plans to raise additional money to supplement the four-year, $4 million grant from the City Fund, whose donors include the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Fund, created by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. (The City Fund also gave a grant to the Newark Charter School Fund.)

A key strategy of the portfolio model is to establish citywide enrollment systems like Newark’s, which allow families to request spots in traditional and charter schools through a single application. Proponents say cross-sector systems simplify enrollment and prevent individual schools from handpicking students, while critics say they steer students into charter schools. Surveys show that most families who use Newark’s system like it, yet it remains contentious: In 2016, the school board tried to dismantle it, arguing that it helped drain students and funding from the district.

Last year, León buoyed charter supporters when he signed a deal to preserve the citywide enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls. But their optimism faded last month when several charter leaders accused the district, which runs the enrollment system, of sending charter schools fewer students than they requested. (Notably, the city’s largest charter networks — KIPP and North Star Academy — have stayed out of the spat.)

Rosenkrans said he has previously discussed the importance of Newark Enrolls with León, but is waiting to jump into the enrollment dispute until he gathers more information. While some charter leaders have floated the idea of a establishing a separate charter enrollment system, Rosekrans said he is committed to preserving Newark Enrolls.

For his part, León has been personally reaching out to charter leaders to try to defuse the situation. A district spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But León told Politico New Jersey that he welcomes the support of Rosenkrans’ group, saying the district invites “anyone and everyone” to help improve the city’s schools.

Rosenkrans’ agenda appears tailor-made to avoid conflict. He said the foundation will advocate for increased funding for all schools and improved quality across sectors, rather than pushing for more charter schools. He said he agrees with Baraka, who has insisted that Newark’s charter sector should not expand beyond the size already approved by the state.

The foundation also plans to publish policy reports and fund projects that get more people “involved in the discussion about public education,” according to its website. Its first grant went to a group called Project Ready, founded by another former KIPP official, that mounted a recent drive to register Newark residents to vote by mail. The campaign led to a 39 percent increase in mail-in ballots in last month’s school board election over the previous year, Rosenkrans said, though overall participation was still limited; less than 5 percent Newark residents voted.

As a nonprofit, the New Jersey Children’s Foundation is prohibited from backing candidates in an election. But, separately from the foundation, Rosenkrans personally raised money to support candidates in Newark’s past two school board races. The donors he tapped support charter schools, and the candidates he backed — who were also endorsed by the mayor and other elected officials — embraced unity among district and charter schools.

Rosenkrans’ fundraising efforts, while distinct from his work at the nonprofit, may have provided fodder to critics who suspect the new foundation is a thinly veiled effort to promote charter schools. Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon, a staunch charter critic, said charter advocates are trying to preempt any new restrictions on those schools amid the leadership changes in Trenton and Newark.

“They’ve sent in the Kyle Rosenkranses to up their game in terms of positive publicity for corporate charters,” he said. “They know that their days are numbered.”

This article originally appeared on Chalkbeat. To view online, click here.