Cami Anderson Moves On: Will Newark School Leadership Begin to Consider Community’s Input?

Bob Braun, retired reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, broke the story on his blog over the weekend that Cami Anderson, Newark’s much despised state-overseer superintendent of schools, will resign this week and will be replaced on an interim basis by Christopher Cerf, Governor Chris Christie’s former commissioner of education, who, since he left New Jersey state government, has been on staff at Amplify, the tablet and on-line curriculum division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.  The Newark Star-Ledger confirmed the report yesterday, adding that Anderson will step down by July 8 and that Cerf’s appointment will need to be approved by the state board of education.

Despite persistent protests from Newark’s mayor, Ras Baraka, and the city’s elected school board, whose public meetings she has refused to attend since January of 2014, Cami Anderson has ruthlessly imposed her “One Newark” school reform plan to close neighborhood schools, open charters, and fire dedicated school principals.  She testified before the state legislature’s committee that is responsible for overseeing the state takeover of Newark’s schools only after repeated delays and only under extreme political pressure.  When she and her boss, New Jersey’s governor Christie were criticized for the arrogance of Newark’s state school management, Christie notoriously declared: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.” Newark’s schools have been under state takeover for twenty years, despite evidence that state management has served neither the children nor the community.  Here are the posts on this blog tagged “Cami Anderson.”

Braun reports that Anderson recently changed her mind about imposing “turnarounds” on two of the city’s high schools: “In the last few days, Anderson also has caved in on significant decisions—to make both East Side High School and Weequahic High School, both iconic institutions in the city, so-called ‘turnaround’ schools.”

Braun reports further that the state school board has recently been listening to Cami Anderson’s critics in Newark including the elected (but powerless under state oversight) school board in Newark: “The breakthrough, according to sources who would not speak for the record, came in private talks between school board officials and members of the state board of education.  Mark Biedron, the president of the state school board, apparently has come to Newark and initiated ‘conversations’ with critics of Anderson.  Four members of the (local) school board—(Ariagna) Perello, its president, Marques Aquil-Lewis, its vice president, and Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson and Donald Jackson spoke at a state school board meeting earlier this month. ‘Too much has been happening for the state school board to ignore,’ said one source, citing the decision by Lamont Thomas, principal of nationally known Science Park High, to resign, and the extraordinary decision by the principal of Central High School, Sharnee Brown, to accuse Anderson of breaking the law by transferring special education students to her school without adequate services.”  Braun adds that students walked out of Newark’s high schools on May 22 in protest.  Students occupied Anderson’s office for several days earlier this spring in protest.

While a second Star-Ledger report claims that Chris Cerf “will be recommended for a three-year contract consistent with initial contracts in other state-operated districts,” Braun’s sources told him that Cerf will serve only in an interim capacity. Cerf, the former New Jersey commissioner of education (who initially appointed Cami Anderson in Newark), left New Jersey government to work with Joel Klein at Rupert Murdoch’s school tablet and curriculum division, Amplify.  The News Corp. has been restructuring this week, and Cerf appears to be out of a job.  Earlier this spring, Bloomberg reported that Amplify has not been making a profit: “By the end of June, Murdoch’s News Corp. will have invested more than $1 billion in Amplify, its division that makes the tablets, sells an online curriculum and offers testing services… It reported a $193 million loss last year, and its annual revenue represented only about 1 percent of News Corp.’s sales of $8.6 billion.”  “The education effort has been riddled with technology failures, fragile equipment, a disconnect between tablet marketers and content developers, and an underestimation of how difficult it would be to win market share from entrenched rivals such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co. in the kindergarten to high school education market.”  According to Bloomberg, barely over a third of classrooms in the United States have internet capacity and speed adequate to serve classrooms of children online simultaneously.  Faster internet speed costs five times more per student, an amount that is prohibitively expensive for many school districts.

Braun reports wide speculation that the deal involving Anderson’s resignation and Cerf’s pending interim appointment also includes a promise that Newark’s elected board of education will be able to help choose the next permanent superintendent: “A bigger shocker, however, is that the school officials and other sources expect the (local school) board to be given a role in selecting a permanent replacement for Anderson.”

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is reported by the Star-Ledger to have commented, “I would need some assurances that local control is real.”

I hope Braun’s information is correct that an effort is under way to consider the will of the citizens of Newark in the operation of their public schools.

Chris Christie and Chris Cerf: Dismantling Equity in New Jersey’s Public Schools

Late last week New Jersey Spotlight, an online news service that covers information on issues critical to New Jersey, published an opinion piece by Mark Weber, Looking Closely at the Dangerous Legacy of Commissioner Chris Cerf.  Weber profiles Christopher Cerf, Governor Chris Christie’s appointed state Commissioner of Education.

One of the reasons the piece is so important is that New Jersey had so much to lose when Christie and Cerf imposed what has become known as a “corporate reform” agenda on the state’s public schools.

New Jersey is an extremely segregated state racially and economically with wealthy suburbs of New York City, beach communities along the Jersey Shore, rural truck farming communities, and cities like Newark, Camden, Jersey City and Paterson—cities that are racially segregated with extremely concentrated poverty.  Last fall the Southern Education Foundation—noting that, “The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools.  Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011.”—documented that 78 percent of the school children in New Jersey’s cities are low income.

Unlike other states, however, and thanks to the decades-long efforts of the plaintiffs in Abbott v. Burke and their attorneys at the Education Law Center, New Jersey has in the past made the greatest strides of any state toward school funding equity.  And the data have proven that sending significant extra state funds into New Jersey’s 31 poorest school districts along with guaranteeing pre-school for the children of these districts has been an important investment in opportunity for these children.  Here is how David Kirp, in an important 2013 book, Improbable Scholars, describes the impact of Abbott v. Burke:

“In twenty-one decrees issued over the course of nearly three decades, the justices have read the state’s constitutional guarantee of ‘a thorough and efficient system of education’ as a charter of equality for urban youth. That 1875 provision, said the court in its historic 1990 ruling, Abbott II, meant that youngsters living in poor cities were entitled to an education as good as their suburban counterparts… In crafting its decision, the court concentrated on the state’s thirty-one worst-off districts…  Thrust and parry—beginning with its 1990 decision, the justices dueled repeatedly with lawmakers…  Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. but the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Education Progress…. The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.”  (pp. 84-85)

A new report by the Education Law Center demonstrates that while , due to Abbott, New Jersey’s high poverty districts were  in 2007 funded 40 percent more than low poverty districts, the state’s investment has slipped under Christie and Cerf.  Today New Jersey’s high poverty districts get only 7 percent extra.

Weber’s profile of Christopher Cerf as New Jersey’s Education Commissioner is troubling in many ways.  Not only have Christie and Cerf reduced school finance equity, but they have “deconstructed” urban school districts.  School closures in Newark’s African American neighborhoods fill the newspapers today.  Tests and accompanying state ratings of schools are the centerpiece of the Cerf tenure.  Teachers are under intense scrutiny and being evaluated by their students’ “growth percentile scores.”

According to Weber, “Leadership has been redefined, and not for the better.” Many of New Jersey’s big-city school districts are under state control, and Cerf has ensured that their appointed superintendents fit the profile for which he is the prototype.  Weber’s summary of Cerf’s career is the very definition of the corporate school “deformer.”  Here are highlights.  “He never taught in a public school, never earned a degree in education, and never ran a school building…  After a few years of teaching at a private school, Cerf pursued a law career, eventually working in the Clinton administration.  He shifted over to education not as a practitioner, but as the president of Edison Learning, the ill-fated school management company that never lived up to its promises in Philadelphia and elsewhere.  That was followed by a stint in the vast and complex New York City schools, serving as deputy chancellor under his colleague in the Clinton White House, Joel Klein….”

Joel Klein, an attorney by profession, left his position as Chancellor of the New York City Schools (under Mayor Michael Bloomberg) to head up a new education technology division, Amplify, for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.  Amplify is the division that manages data for school districts and produces computer tablets for sale to school districts.  Christopher Cerf is leaving his position as Commissioner of Education in New Jersey to join Klein, his former boss, at Amplify.  Weber comments: “When Cerf departs at the end of March, he’ll be continuing a pattern of sliding back and forth between the private and public sector that he’s engaged in over his entire career.”

Who Are the Philanthropic and Corporate Sponsors of Today’s School Deform?

I believe that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—is essential for ensuring that all children are served, and I believe that a strong system of public education is essential as the foundation of our democracy.  In that context, I think it is important to write more about what I support—strong public schools—than what I oppose—the assault on public education by those who would privatize the education of our children primarily for the purpose of making a profit.

However, I don’t think we ought to be naive.  For this reason I sometimes like to look up the source of the money behind the school privatization movement as a discipline to keep myself informed.  In that spirit, let’s check on some of the foundations and corporations that sponsored Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education National Summit last week in Boston.

Foundations

The Grand Rapids, Michigan founders of Amway Products, Dick and Betsy DeVos, through their family foundation and Betsy’s organization, All Children Matter, are among the nation’s most persistent promoters of vouchers.  According to Think Progress, “In 2002, Dick DeVos sketched out a plan to undermine public education before the Heritage Foundation, explaining that education advocates should stop using the term ‘public schools’ and instead call them ‘government schools.'”

The Oberndorf Family Foundation devotes itself to school choice and privatization.  According to Think Progress, the Orerndorfs, whose money was earned through SPO Partners, an investment firm, have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past five years in school privatization: “Bill Oberndorf… said that the passage of the Indiana voucher law was the ‘gold standard’ for what should be done across America.”

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, has been a strong supporter of charter networks and the corporate school reform movement with grants to the New School Venture Fund, the Charter School Growth Fund, KIPP charter schools,  and Teach for America.  The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund is the philanthropy of the founders of The Gap.  According to the National Education Policy Center: “The Fishers were early supporters of Edison Schools, and have been major supporters of KIPP and Teach for America… the family also supported a young organization, The New Teacher Project, founded by Michelle Rhee. As noted on the Fisher’s 2011 Form 990, the foundation contributed $250,000 to Rhee’s newest organization, StudentsFirst.”

And there is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the longest and most constant funder of school voucher efforts.  Bradley, a Milwaukee-based foundation, underwrote think tanks and astro-turf organizations behind the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee.  The Wisconsin Center for Media and Democracy has closely tracked the far-right giving of the Bradley Foundation, and quotes a local newspaper investigation: “According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ‘from 2001 to 2009, it [Bradley] doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined.’”

Corporations

Here is Amplify, the school tablet and education data management division of Rupert Murdoch’s The News Corp.  Joel Klein, who revolved right out of his job as Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools to his position with the News Corp, worked with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to bring mass charterization, disruptive change through ongoing school closures, and school co-locations to New York City.  Microsoft is also a large contributor.  Jeb Bush has worked with many of the technology firms, including Microsoft, to promote “blended” learning that is said to save money for school districts if computers do some of the teaching and thereby permit larger class size.  Edgenuity, another sponsor, promotes blended learning and sells “blended” curricula that incorporate computers. Intel is another enormous ed-tech company.

Here among the sponsors are a number of corporations who supply standardized tests and grade the tests and manage the data around testing: Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scantron.  Scholastic is selling educational materials to implement the Common Core Standards.   Renaissance Learning produces curricula aligned with the Common Core Standards.  The Education Testing Service, the manager of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests for decades, has also been prominent in the burgeoning K-12 standardized testing market.

Finally there is K12, the nation’s largest, for-profit, on-line charter school with affiliates across the states.  K12 brags about its huge enrollment, but cannot boast about its graduation rates and student achievement. This is the company about which hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson published a scathing critique a couple of weeks ago.