NJ Left Behind

By Laura Waters

This week I interviewed Kyle Rosenkrans, the executive director of a newly-launched nonprofit called New Jersey Children’s Foundation (NJCF).

Rosenkrans, a Jersey native, plans to initiate a fact-based discussion about public education in Newark and, in doing so, encourage stakeholders to move away from the “zero-sum politics” that have characterized the growth of the public charter sector. Instead, he will urge all Newarkers towards a shared goal of doubling the number of students in high-quality traditional and charter schools within the next five years.

For an overview of NJCF see my article published in The 74, which describes the nonprofit’s plan to publish data, research, and policy recommendations for NJ’s largest school district and support grassroots advocacy to improve student outcomes.

For this interview I wanted to get beyond the basics and find out what drives Rosenkrans’ determination to bridge the political divides that often trip up school improvement plans.

Laura: Why is now the right time to take on the task of correcting the record on Newark’s educational revival and spearheading further progress?

Kyle: Look, despite naysayer narratives, the fact is that African-American students in Newark are four times more likely to go to a quality school — I don’t care if it’s traditional or charter — than they were in 2006. We have lots of room for improvement but the story of Newark’s schools over the last 13 years is a success story. The data is right there: High school graduation rates are way up, Newark students across the district made big gains in math and reading over the last decade, and for the first time ever this past year Newark charter students in grades 3-8 eliminated the achievement gap and outperformed the state average in both English language arts and math. It’s not enough. Too many kids aren’t yet benefiting from this improvement and that needs to change.

It’s time to step away from the zero-sum politics that have characterized the discussion about district and charter schools.  We need to unify around the needs of Newark schoolchildren and ignore other agendas. If we can’t do this, then we’re cheating our children out of a shot at educational equity.

Laura: That’s what drives you?

Kyle: Yes. Equity and fairness drives me. Education is what I’m most passionate about but it’s all part of the same soup. That promise of equity is why I wake up motivated to go to work every day. And this is the moment! The fires have died down, the political unity is there, and we have the tools we need to pursue an ambitious agenda, to double the number of spots in high-quality schools in Newark.

Laura: Did you evolve into this advocacy independently? What were you like as a kid?

Kyle: I grew up in Stillwater, New Jersey, in Sussex County. My mom went to college for a semester but couldn’t afford to stay so she worked in the business office of our local school district.  She was part of the staff that helped prepare for board meetings and was very privy to the inner-workings of the school district, so I understood pretty early on the psychology and culture of education in New Jersey. My dad was a telephone line worker and he became disabled. His union fought for him to get social security and benefits. I am forever indebted to unions and know how important they are. All the state policy debates on education and pension reform is what I go home to on holidays because this directly affects my family.

Laura: So you were a first-generation college student?

Kyle: Yes.

Laura: What did you do after college?

Kyle: Oh, a whole variety of things. I interned on Capitol Hill while Congress was writing the No Child Left Behind Act but turned down a full-time job because something told me that I wanted to learn more about how education policy actually affects people, before I was in a position of crafting policy. So I decided I wanted to practice education law which gives you a chance to apply laws to actual real-world situations and better understand whether the laws and policies are working.

So I went to law school in Newark, which was where I met Cory Booker and Shavar Jeffries–they both opened my eyes with their vision for education and the future of Newark as early as 2006.

Then I got a job as an education lawyer at Essex-Newark Legal Services, which provides free attorneys to families who can’t afford a lawyer. I was their only education lawyer, but I also represented hundreds of clients in fighting evictions, helping ex-offenders clear their records and get good jobs, doing community outreach to train school staff and others who work with children, and advocating for LGBTQ rights.

I was a visiting law professor for two years at Seton Hall Law School’s Center for Social Justice where I taught third year law students and was able to provide free legal representation to people that couldn’t afford a lawyer. I also got involved to help start an independent charter school in Newark, which is how I really learned about charter schools.

To me, all of this was part of the same milieu of social justice work–righting wrongs, leveling the playing field, and breaking down unfair walls that get in the way of people achieving their greatest potential.

Laura: So, back to education in Newark, how do you get Newark’s success story to outweigh all the political wrangling around school choice?

Kyle: Most regular people don’t identify with the political and ideological wrangling over these issues. We think the message will come across over-time, as long as there is a consistent voice on the issues producing content that helps us document that progress. Politically, education will continue to improve as long as the district maintains its efforts and the charter sector does the same–and the city’s leaders know that. That combination has a political and community mandate right now, which is the way most people prefer to do this work. You shouldn’t have to fight to open a new school that will provide kids with what they need. You shouldn’t have to fight over basic facts like whether a school is doing well or poorly. If schools are great, then the community needs to know that and NJCF can fill that role in order to better inform parents, students, and educators.

Laura: Do you have specific plans to get the data into people’s hands?

Kyle: Yes, we’ll publish high-quality information about all Newark schools. After all, Newark is the proof-point that district and charter schools can collaborate to produce the best outcomes for students. We want more people to see this conversation play out where they get their news: social media. But that’s the low-hanging fruit. We also want to publish to politicians and other officials who are making decisions. We hope to anchor the discussion on a simple question: are the schools better off today than they were yesterday? Right now, the answer is simple too: “yes.” We can amplify that message by producing high-quality content so people can absorb these facts in a policy-making capacity.

We also intend to empower community grassroots education advocates who are building a big tent by sharing this information with those doing the work. We want to elevate the voices of parents and help them become more active participants so that we can galvanize even more advocacy.

Laura: You’ve said that NJCF will also have a fundraising prong. Can you talk about that?

Kyle: Sure. Like many of Newark’s other philanthropic institutions that have been doing amazing work for decades, we think philanthropy can play a critical role in building partnerships and solving problems. And there’s never enough supply to meet the demand for philanthropy, so we want to help. In general, we want any grantmaking to drive our mission and otherwise invest in proven solutions that will result in more kids reading and doing math on grade level. We’re very open and flexible as to how that can be accomplished and are still defining this aspect our work.

Laura: What’s your relationship like with Newark’s new superintendent, Roger León?

Kyle: I meet with León regularly to discuss the role that NJCF can play in the district’s continued improvement. We want NJCF to be the glue that keeps Newark’s education stakeholders working together. The new superintendent has a big responsibility to produce a strategy and vision to improve the schools and we’re excited to learn more about in the months to come. I anticipate that there will be some good ideas in there that we’ll want to partner on.We don’t want attention or credit. We want it to work. We want to get better schools faster.

Laura: How about John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union? He has unabashed animus towards charter schools. Do you worry about that?

Kyle: I do not worry about Abeigon. The average Newarker — those in the moral majority — see the facts clearly and that outweighs any ideological friction that the anti-choice crowd occasionally tries to foment.

Laura: What do you think about Gov. Murphy’s “pause” in charter school expansion?

Kyle: If there’s a pause I haven’t seen it. The Department of Education has been approving renewals and small expansions over the last year. Now I know the DOE is also reviewing NJ’s charter school law but I’m pretty darn confident that the result of the review will be loud and clear: Charters work, families like them, and the state needs to fund them more equitably. Sure, there are some loud voices from Princeton and other tony suburbs but they are a tiny minority.  I was at a lot of their meetings and parents showed strong support for charter schools.

If the DOE comes to any other conclusion then they had a pre-ordained agenda and weren’t actually listening to people.

Laura: You had an op-ed in the Star-Ledger where you tried to correct the narrative that Cory Booker’s school reform initiatives were not successful. Why is it important to get the word out on what really happened since he first won Newark’s mayorship in 2006?

Kyle: It’s important because policymakers and the general public must understand that Newark is the proof-point for collaboration between district schools and charter schools and that kind of collaborative system can produce better results for kids. I can’t believe that fundamental premise is still questioned. The district didn’t go bankrupt. Student outcomes are much better. We have to separate fact from fiction.

That said, it’s not good enough, by any measure. No one should run a victory lap because there are far too many kids in schools that are underperforming. Policymakers owe us a strategy to continue that improvement until the success reaches all children equitably.

But there’s something deeper going on with this data discussion that we want to tackle. Too often our discussions about policy in the U.S. are premised on nostalgia, on myth, on fear-mongering. Just look at our debates on climate change, vaccinations, gun control. Our policy debates are infected with misinformation and bad actors. There’s such an anti-science, anti-data psychology that infects our politics and policymaking.

I don’t want Newark to sink to that level. We need to look at the data, see what works best for students and families, and make that our touchstone. Newark families, regardless of where they send their children to school, have a shared destiny, a shared unity, because the connective tissue between the traditional sector and the charter sector makes all reforms stronger and stickier. That’s the whole point of NJCF, to get everyone swimming in the same direction.

*Disclosure: NJCF supports the work of the nonprofit organization Education Post, which independently supports a variety of initiatives around the country, including New Jersey Left Behind.

This article originally appeared on NJ LEFT BEHIND. To view online, click here.