NEWARK, NJ — As a grade schooler, Jasmine Morrison traversed the streets of a much different Newark. She recalls minimal oversight with some peers ending up in jail or pregnant. Simple walks to and from her school were often fraught with danger. And getting a grip on the task at hand - homework, good grades, career aspirations - felt more akin to a pipe dream than reality. 

But what’s most changed about the climate surrounding education in her city, Morrison says, is hope. 

“The main thing I would highlight is hope in the children of Newark and in their capabilities,” Morrison told TAPinto Newark. “I feel like when I was coming up through the school system, there was this expectation that we would drop out or worse, and as a result the teachers were not as engaged.”

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It became so precarious for a young Morrison that her parents transferred her to St. Lucy’s, a catholic school. 

“My parents were not Catholic,” she pointed out, “but the climate in school was just so bad they had to get me out of that environment. I remember the impact it had on my family financially but they were trying to get me into a good position to succeed.”

It was in the spirit of what her parents did for her that Morrison has found herself smack dab in the middle of a national charter school conversation. 

Stance on Charters

Morrison - whose sons Ibrahim, 9, and Idris, 6, attend Uncommon Schools’ North Star Academy - has been on the frontlines of advocating for additional funding and support of Newark charter schools. 

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has not been a forceful advocate like his predecessor, former Gov. Chris Christie.

After first entering office, Christie pledged to support charters and ultimately made good on opening more schools - with enrollment doubling statewide to 50,000 during his tenure. 

Murphy ran with the backing of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), which has pushed for a moratorium on the approval of new charter school applications until “funding and accountability issues are resolved.”

In 2018, Murphy announced a review of the charter schools by the Department of Education (DOE). Morrison said she is not against the review, but believes can be handled more effectively.

“Parents like me are seeking a better alternative to the district schools in our neighborhoods, where children often struggle mightily to learn against all odds,” she wrote in an op-ed to The Star Ledger. 

Morrison said the DOE is asking the wrong questions and as a result not capturing, “how much charter schools are positively impacting our children, our families and our communities.”

The Garden State today is home to over 80 charter schools, serving nearly 50,000 students across the state - mostly children in economically challenged communities including Newark, Camden, Jersey City, Paterson, Trenton, Plainfield, Asbury Park, and Atlantic City -- with 89 percent of charter school students graduating from high school. Roughly 86 percent of the students are black or Latino and 72 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch. 

Public charter schools are open to all students. In the event more students apply for a charter school than there are available seats, schools hold a lottery to determine who is admitted. Some charters in New Jersey offer a preference for students who quality for free and reduced price lunch.

While the state’s two-decade old charter school law provides charter schools with public funding, it does not provide facilities funding — thus charter schools have to spend up to 10 percent of their operating budget to pay for facilities. Charter advocates say it adds up to millions of dollars that cannot be used in the classrooms.

In Newark, over 17,000 students are enrolled in charter schools and waitlist number are in the thousands. The New Jersey Children’s Foundation commissioned a poll earlier this year, surveying 516 Newark voters that found a majority of voters supported common enrollment for district and charter schools and fairer funding for schools. 

The survey, conducted by the firm Change Research, also found that 63% of voters agreed with the statement that “public charter schools are an important part of the public school landscape in Newark.”

What Brick City needs

Morrison graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in political science and later earned her master’s degree in information technology from New Jersey Institute of Technology. 

Newark has been her home for most her life and while the district has improved in leaps and bounds, there still remains much room for improvement. 

“Parent engagement could be better,” she said. “I host several parent groups and we’re always talking about things we could do better. Throughout Essex County that sometimes means parents who have children who've been through the juvenile justice system and need support [navigating] that.”

Morrison attends parent summits regularly and says the Abbott Leadership Institute is a good resource for information. While groups like ALI, Project Ready and others provide good information, she said if parents are not engaged, funding can be ill-spent facility improvements and programs not quite befitting students’ current needs. 

“I think as a larger body we could come together more often and talk about how we can better improve the lives of the students,” she said. “Charter schools for me have kept in mind family impact, not just child impact. That’s what I love about the schools. If you talk to the parents you’ll sense a renewed energy; a feeling of vigor and energy in their children.”

That vigor, she said, should exist everywhere.