I do not pretend fully to understand Newark, New Jersey’s mayoral politics. I’m a Clevelander and David Brooks is a New Yorker, and we are both outsiders. But this morning, as a Clevelander, I need to correct what I’ll be generous and call an oversimplification in Brooks’ article in today’s NY Times. The too frequent problem with David Brooks is that while his observations about our society are often interesting, when it comes right down to any particular issue, he doesn’t get the implications on the ground.
Today David Brooks writes about the mayoral race in Newark, New Jersey. Brooks clearly prefers Shavar Jeffries over Ras Baraka for mayor of Newark. He portrays Jeffries as a change agent—a reformer, while he portrays Baraka as “regular,” the status quo. (This sounds a little like Arne Duncan who frequently criticizes those who might be in favor of supporting the “weak, status quo” of traditional public schooling.) Brooks titles his column, “How Cities Change,” implying that the person who opposes change is just in the way. I am not going to take sides in Newark’s mayors race. I don’t know Shavar Jeffries; I know a little bit more about Ras Baraka. What I do know something about is the drama currently playing in Newark.
There are three urban stages today in America where the battle of the imposition of so-called “corporate school reform” is being most distinctly and unambiguously dramatized: Chicago, Philadelphia, and most bitterly Newark, New Jersey. To call Newark’s raging battle about school “deform” the mere flash-point in the mayoral election is a serious error of definition.
For two decades Newark’s schools have been run by the state of New Jersey. As in most places state takeover has never worked in Newark. Today the strings are being pulled by Governor Chris Christie, Chris Cerf—Christie’s appointed state school commissioner (who left on February 28 to take a job with Joel Klein at Rupert Murdoch’s tablet and school data division, Amplify), and Cami Anderson—the state-appointed overseer superintendent, alternatively trained at the Broad Academy and formerly employed by Joel Klein in New York.
Cami Anderson has enraged the community with her One Newark Plan to close public schools in Newark’s poorest neighborhoods, bring in more charter schools, fire several hundred teachers, and replace many of them with recruits through Teach for America under a grant from the Walton Foundation. Several school principals willing to criticize Cami Anderson’s plan in a civil way at a public meeting were suspended from their jobs. A PTA president who had the courage to question the plan was arrested. Because Cami Anderson has so angered the black community in Newark, the meetings of the appointed school board have devolved into late night shouting matches, and Anderson has ceased attending the public meetings.
One leader who has stood up to Christie, Cerf, and Anderson is Ras Baraka. As the principal of a traditional public school in an impoverished neighborhood of Newark and a member of Newark’s city council, Ras Baraka has been willing to stand up against the One Newark Plan to privatize Newark’s schools and fire hundreds of teachers, many of whom are the citizens of Newark.
This morning David Brooks portrays all this as though the conversation about charter schools is merely one scene in a much larger drama. In fact the battle over public vs. privatized education in Newark is a central drama against which the mayor’s race is being played. David Brooks writes an interesting column that misses the point.