Peter Moskowitz/Al Jazeera America

Newark high school students walk out to protest new charter-friendly plan

Newark is one of several cities where students have protested decreasing budgets and an increase in charter schools

NEWARK, NJ. – Holding bullhorns and signs – some with the word “liar” in bold letters above the silhouettes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and state-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson – hundreds of middle and high school students walked out of schools and into the streets of this economically struggling city on Thursday, demanding that the city administration reverse course on a plan that could lead to some schools closing or downsizing, teachers being let go and charter schools moving into public buildings.

“They said (the plan) will make Newark schools better,” said Jose Leonard, a 16-year-old at Arts High School.  “They’ve been saying that for 20 years and we haven’t seen anything. It’s like they don’t care about the students.”

The students say they’re fed up with what they see as an intentional defunding of Newark’s traditional public schools in favor of charter schools – which are run by nonprofit organizations or private companies using taxpayer dollars.  

They’re not alone.

The Newark protests are the latest in a spate of recent backlashes against school budget cuts and the introduction of charter schools in cash-strapped municipalities across the nation.

An analysis from the Center for Budget and Policy priorities estimates that states are spending 28 percent less on average per student than they were in 2008. The United States saw a surge in charter schools during the same period, with enrollment increasing by 80 percent in the last five years, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (PDF).

Given those big changes, experts say it’s no coincidence that in the last year, students, teachers and other community members have protested in cities across the nation.

In February, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett canceled his appearance at a Philadelphia public school after students and teachers at the school planned a protest over his budget cuts, which forced many of the city’s schools to cut all extracurricular activities. In Oklahoma, an estimated 25,000 converged on the capitol earlier this week to protest low school funding. Protests have also been held in Oregon and in Camden, N.J.

The protests in Newark aren’t new, either. Last year, high schools students formed the Newark Students Union and held a protest in the city’s downtown area, followed by another in March of this year.

Advocates of traditional public schools say that the protests are likely to continue, as more school districts grapple with how to use their ever-decreasing funds to adequately educate their children.

“What’s happening in Newark follows a national pattern as we see states fund schools less than they did before the (2008) recession started,” said Jeff Bryant, a fellow at progressive education nonprofit organization Campaign for America’s Future.

While the situation in Newark may be part of a trend, it’s also unique and uniquely dire. The school system faces a $100 million budget gap, and about 30 percent of Newark’s 3,200 teachers will be laid off in the next three years if something doesn’t change, according to the Newark Public Schools District.

Hardly anyone is arguing that the situation doesn’t need to be addressed, but what has caused protests over the past year is the direction in which that those changes are heading.

Newark superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled her “One Newark” plan in December, which would make it easier to fire underperforming teachers and principals, increase the number of charter schools in the city and use public buildings to house charter schools, among other measures.

Anderson’s supporters say such reforms are the only way to fix Newark’s struggling system.

“This doesn’t have to be ‘us vs. them’ opposition,” said New Jersey Charter Schools Association President Carlos Perez. “It needs to be a question of “is this a good school and one addressing the needs of kids or not?”

Some protesters seemed to at least partially agree with that notion on Wednesday, saying the debate shouldn’t be over the merits of charters, but why charters are getting an ever-bigger chunk of an ever-decreasing pool of money for schools.

“This is the worst it’s been here by far,” said Sheila Montague, a language arts professor who has taught in the Newark school system for 20 years. “People don’t (necessarily) have a problem with charter schools, but with the lack of quality and equality in our education.”

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