When states take over struggling urban school districts, it never works. The purpose is always said to be saving the education of poor children whose scores are low. The real purpose is never announced: to save money in places where states ought to be allocating far more to help schools serve children whose lives are dominated by poverty.
State departments of education are bureaucratic agencies that are not equipped to run large urban school districts. The so-called “recovery districts” in places like New Orleans and Detroit tend to contract out the schools to private charter management agencies. Proponents of such school takeovers try to make it look as though the test scores are rising, but overall scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress never turn around. As school finance experts tell us again and again, more money is needed to support children at school when they live in concentrated poverty, more money than is needed in wealthy suburbs where family income makes up for anything that may be missing at school. But in state capitols dominated by rural legislators and representatives from outer suburbs, we haven’t seen any state come up with a Marshall Plan to support the schools serving children in big city school districts where virtually every child is poor. And so politicians in the legislatures—in Harrisburg and Trenton and Lansing—blame the big city school districts and pretend state takeover of one sort or another will fix it all up. It never works.
Governor Chris Christie has been more transparent than most state overseers in expressing his attitude toward the families of Newark, where the state has been running the public schools for twenty years now. Last year he was filmed for TV when he claimed: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.” Lyndsey Layton, who profiled the long-running tragedy of Christie’s management of Newark’s schools in Tuesday’s Washington Post, reminds us what Christie told the new mayor, Ras Baraka, who was elected in Newark last spring on a platform that emphasized the need for more local control of the public schools: “I’m the decider. You have nothing to do with it.”
Layton describes a delegation preparing to travel to Washington, D.C. yesterday to seek some kind of federal support: “a band of city, county and state elected officials, along with leaders from the NAACP and others,” who planned “a meeting with Obama administration officials. Newark parents have filed a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that the plan called ‘One Newark,’ disproportionately affects African Americans.”
Implemented by Christie’s appointed school superintendent, Cami Anderson, the “One Newark” plan became operational at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year. Layton explains: “The plan, which fully took effect during this academic year, essentially blew up the old system. It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices. It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. Many families saw their children spread among multiple schools or sent across town. The scattering has been problematic for a city divided along gang lines, where four in 10 residents don’t own cars. In addition, state test scores have stayed the same or even declined.”
In mid-February eight Newark high school students, leaders of the Newark Students Union, occupied Cami Anderson’s office for four days. Their demand? A meeting with the superintendent, who has been notoriously unwilling to speak with members of the public she purports to serve. As the fourth day of the protest arrived, Anderson met with the students, but only days later, State Education Commissioner David Hespe renewed Anderson’s contract, an extension that had been in question. He even provided a performance bonus.
Just as Cami Anderson balked at meeting with the students who were occupying her office, she has also refused to attend all meetings of Newark’s locally elected and largely powerless school board since January of 2014. She refused to comply with a formal summons from the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, chaired by State Senator Ronald Rice until the committee repeated its demand that she present herself. This is the legislative committee whose responsibility it is to oversee school districts being operated by the state. Bob Braun, former reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger and currently a Newark blogger, writes: “State Education Commissioner David Hespe last week awarded Anderson another year’s contract plus a small raise despite her failure to attend public meetings and the decline in test scores in the city. Anderson has generally refused to conduct public meetings of any sort, and stood up Rice’s Joint Committee on Public Schools three times before finally agreeing to appear in January.” Braun quotes State Senator Rice: “This is probably the first time in the history of New Jersey that a superintendent of a school district has simply disrespected and been insubordinate to the state Legislature by refusing to meet her contractual and statutory responsibility to appear and answer questions when requested.”
Braun lists the members of the delegation that traveled to Washington, D.C. yesterday looking for help for the people of Newark as they try to find a way to block the destruction of their public schools. Besides Senator Rice, the delegation included several other members of both houses of the state’s legislature, representatives of Newark’s clergy, directors of several local education advocacy and day care organizations, the executive director of the Newark Teachers Union, two representatives of the Newark Students Union, Hillary Shelton, senior vice president of the national NAACP, and David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.
The Washington Post‘s Layton surmises that Christie’s arrogance may affect his prospects as a presidential hopeful. She reminds readers that Christie promised something very different as he launched Newark’s school reform: “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went on a publicity blitz when he vowed to fix this city’s struggling schools with the most expansive re-engineering of urban education anywhere in the country. He told Oprah Winfrey in 2010 that Newark would become a ‘national model.’ He said on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ that the plan would be ‘paradigm shifting.’ And he took ownership when community leaders began to complain about some of the plan’s controversial elements… But five years after Christie launched what could have been a career-defining policy initiative for an aspiring future president, city leaders are in revolt.”
To read in depth about the role of Christie, former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, former New Jersey schools commissioner Christopher Cerf, and Cami Anderson, read Dale Russakoff’s profile of Newark school reform, Schooled, in the May 19, 2014 New Yorker, or this blog’s post about Russakoff’s piece.