Update: This post has been corrected. The original confused Andy Smarick and Jonathan Schnur, both corporate school reformers, both creative disruptors, and both with connections to school reform in New Jersey.
If you want to develop a better understanding of so-called “corporate” school reform, Stan Karp’s article in the spring Rethinking Schools magazine is mandatory reading. Karp examines the catastrophic transformation of the schools in Newark, New Jersey and a subsequent attempt by corporate reformers to take over the schools in his hometown, suburban Montclair. In A Tale of Two Districts, Karp traces the history of Newark’s destabililization under Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie, but neither was there a way Montclair could insulate itself. He suggests: “If public education is going to survive, its supporters will need to make common cause across the divides of race and class, city and suburb.”
Karp summarizes the history of corporate reform in New Jersey in crisp, packed paragraphs, beginning with the appointment of Christopher Cerf as Governor Chris Christie’s education commissioner. “Cerf was the former head of Edison Inc., once the nation’s largest private education management firm. A registered Democrat who served in the Clinton administration, Cerf was a pioneer in opening up the $700 billion/year K-12 education market to commercial penetration. He was deputy chancellor under New York City’s Joel Klein and a senior advisor to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; all three are charter members of the corporate ed reform club. In public, Cerf regularly dismissed talk about ‘corporate ed reform’ as conspiratorial nonsense. In private, however, he described school reform politics as ‘a knife fight in a dark room’ and embraced a brand of what corporate reformers proudly call ‘disruptive innovation’ that made him a perfect choice to be Christie’s education commissioner. One of Cerf’s first tasks was to recruit a new state-appointed superintendent for NPS (Newark Public Schools). He chose Cami Anderson, a former Teach for America (TFA) executive who had also worked at New Leaders for New Schools, a kind of TFA for principals….”
How has all this affected racial and economic segregation in New Jersey’s already highly segregated Essex County? Karp explores the implications of what has been the explosive growth of charter schools in Newark: “On top of the intense racial segregation that characterizes all Newark schools, the charters serve fewer of the English learners, special education students, and poorest students, who remain in district schools in ever-higher concentrations. Of the 14,000 students in schools serving the highest-need populations, 93 percent are in district schools and just 7 percent are in charters. Some of Newark’s highest profile charters are ‘no excuses’ schools with authoritarian cultures and appalling attrition rates. Newark’s KIPP schools lose nearly 60 percent of African American boys between 5th and 12th grades, and Uncommon Schools lose about 75 percent… As Andy Smarick, a former deputy commissioner in Christie’s DOE, now with the corporate think tank Bellwether, wrote: ‘The solution isn’t an improved traditional district; it’s an entirely different delivery system for public education systems of charter schools.'”
This blog has extensively tracked early protests in Newark against Cami Anderson and her One Newark plan, the election last year of Ras Baraka, a public school educator, as Newark’s new mayor, and continuing massive protests that have continued all year by Newark’s residents—especially the parents and students—who do not want to lose their neighborhood schools. Karp fills in the details and implications of this history and summarizes: “If this sounds a lot like New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other cities, it’s because it is…. especially efforts to disenfranchise communities of color and promote privatization.”
But, continues Karp, “If cities like Newark are the entry point for corporate reform, wealthier suburban districts are the next prize.” Montlair, Karp’s hometown, is a somewhat unusual suburb, which has struggled and succeeded to some degree at least to serve all students well in a racially integrated public school system at a time when there is little policy support for diversity. Montclair is an upper middle income community that sends 90 percent of its public high school graduates to college. And it is also the home, according to Karp, of many who are active in the corporate reform movement including Chris Cerf himself and Jonathan Alter, a journalist, supporter of KIPP schools, and promoter of the film Waiting for Superman. “The town is also home to officials of Uncommon Schools, the Achievement First Network, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies and KIPP.”
And New Jersey was once also home to Jonathan Schnur, who worked in the New Jersey Department of Education and was later the architect of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program. Schnur had mentored Penny MacCormack in a superintendents’ training program, and, when Montclair needed a new superintendent, he endorsed her candidacy. She was subsequently hired as Montclair’s new school superintendent, with an agenda, she said, to increase the use of students’ standardized test scores for evaluating teachers: “I will be using the data to hold educators accountable and make sure we get results.” The fact that Montclair has long had a school board appointed by the mayor made MacCormack’s hiring easier. “In Montclair, there was no formal state takeover and no contested school board elections. Instead, the long reach of corporate education reform had used influence peddling, backdoor connections, and a compliant appointed school board to install one of their own at the head of one of the state’s model districts.”
But Montclair also had powerful residents committed to defending the public schools. Journalist (and professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism) LynNell Hancock wrote: “This is a Montclair I hardly recognize. It’s not the children, the quality of the schools or the town’s democratic values that have changed. It’s a paradigm shift in school leadership, a top-down technocratic approach that narrows its focus to ‘fixing’ schools by employing business strategies….” The teachers union rose up and forced the board to listen to teachers testifying at board meetings. In Montclair, unlike Newark, the protests paid off: “As we go to press, a stunning turn of events underscored again how corporate reform plays out differently across inequalities of power, race, and class. Faced with growing opposition, MacCormack abruptly resigned to take an unspecified job with a ‘new educational services organization’ in New York City.”
Montclair’s residents have been powerful enough to pressure even an appointed school board and to insert expert voices in the press to push back the attack on their schools. Newark’s citizens have been less successful. Karp’s article is essential for filling in the gaps about how savvy and powerful corporate reformers are spreading disruption, privatization, and anti-teacher policies. Near the end of his article, Karp describes budding efforts of suburbanites and Newark residents to work together to fight Christie’s corporate plans. I wish I had as much hope as Karp expresses that parents and activists across city and suburban school jurisdictions will be able and willing to frame the issues to define common cause.