Newark Chapter 2: A Governor Seizes Upon a New Idea
In New Jersey, lifelong educators and community activists played the leading role in educating policymakers about the potential that chartering had to catalyze unprecedented change within urban public schools. After traveling to Minnesota to learn from those who had passed the nation’s first charter school law, Camden-based educator and community leader Gloria Bonilla-Santiago began engaging a wide range of policymakers and thought leaders about the profound need for change. Within a few years, she came to be seen as the driving force behind the legislative push to pass a charter school law in New Jersey.
In an oral history recorded by the National Charter School Founders Library …
… Bonilla-Santiago described how she began acquainting legislators with the tragic conditions that existed within New Jersey’s urban centers in order to build support for profound policy innovation.
These were researchers, intellectuals, and community leaders from urban centers, who were saying, look, we got a problem in urban education, and we have to fix it. And and this is one way. I mean, we weren’t saying this is the only way. We were saying this is one way to begin to break with the the plight of poverty that was occurring. Because we were losing so many kids to crime. And no one was caring. Nobody was saying anything. And so we brought parents and kids to tell their stories about how horrible their schools were. We had a kid who talked about how … he couldn’t spell the word four. You know, I took Jack Ewing to a classroom where a kid in fifth grade couldn’t spell a number.
And so, you know, he was heartbroken.
That’s how we began to educate the legislature about what was happening.
Realizing that her efforts would be strengthened by bringing in partners from other urban centers in New Jersey where public schools were in a deep state of crisis, Bonilla-Santiago joined forces with James Verrilli, who had been working for many years as a teacher and school principal at Project Link, a storied civil rights and education organization in Newark’s Central Ward.
Verilli would later describe his service at Project Link as vitally important work …
… but he yearned to find a way to create a high-quality, tuition-free educational opportunity for the families of the Central Ward.
I came to Newark as a teacher in 1985, and I began teaching there. I was at a little private school for low-income families right in the heart of the Central Ward at the epicenter of the Newark riots back inthe 60. And I was working there as a teacher for a number of years, and I wanted our school to be able to serve the community really well, but we had to charge a really moderate tuition to families, and I didn’t think that was right. I felt that students should be able to have this education for free as a civil right. So I began to research charter schools and get involved with creating charter schools.
Working together, Bonilla-Santiago and Verrilli expanded their engagement efforts in the legislature and were soon introduced to Christine Todd Whitman, who was aggressively pushing for school choice in her campaign for governor of New Jersey in 1993.
By the time Whitman was sworn in to become the first woman to serve as the Governor of New Jersey, Bonilla-Santiago and Verrilli had convinced her that chartering was the most effective path by which expanded school choice could be achieved. So in her first inaugural address, Whitman committed to passing a charter school law during her first year in office.
Of all the tests we are entrusted to perform as your government, nothing is more sacred than our responsibility to educate your children. The school system we have today was developed in the 19th century to prepare the children of farmers and new immigrants for an industrial revolution that wanted bodies for repetitive factory work. The world has changed and our education system must change with it …. We are going to inject competition and encourage innovation by developing alternatives like magnet schools and charter schools within our public school systems to give parents a choice of where to send their children.
A month before her second inaugural, the legislature passed a charter school law, with the New York Times labeling the schools “Made to Order Schools” …
… making New Jersey the 20th state in the country to pass a charter school law.
Within days, the signing of the new law began to catalyze the forming of new relationships destined to have a profound impact on public education in Newark and beyond. In the National Charter School Founder’s Library Oral History, long-time educator and community activist, Norman Atkins described it this way:
One day somebody told me to call this guy named James Verrilli, in Newark … I went to his school, which was called Link Community School, and watched him teach and he was the best teacher that I had ever seen. And to make a to make a long story short, he was dreaming about starting a school of his own. And he wanted to do it in the public sector, where there would be adequate resources to pay teachers, and where you could start to serve more and more students. And he had been tracking the charter school legislation from Minnesota 1991. And he said, “you won’t believe this but just like a few days ago, the governor of New Jersey signed a charter school law in our state, and I want to go start one of those first schools. Would you open one with me …?”
We decided at that moment that we were going to go found a school.
When Whitman gave her third state of the state, she used the occasion to announce that seventeen charter schools had been approved for opening in the fall of 1997.
Not only do our education reforms benefit students, they also benefit parents. They give parents the information they need to be sure their schools are doing right by their kids. And our reforms have given them the option of starting new schools in their communities to meet a particular need. So today I am happy to announce that we are awarding 17 charters to authorize the creation of innovative schools, established under the law I signed last year at this podium.
Charter schools reflect the creativity and the energy of the people of this state. I wish all of you could have read the proposals that we received from all over New Jersey. They’re truly exciting.
As she made her announcement, she gestured to the gallery where Gloria Bonilla-Santiago and James Verrilli were seated.
Within months, both would have their schools open.
Verrilli’s and Atkin’s school took the name North Star, one of two charter schools to open in Newark that year.
It was a well-chosen name, not just for the organization itself, but for the community of charter schools that would emerge in Newark committed to charting out a completely new direction for public education.