Does America Care Enough about Newark’s Students to Hold Chris Christie Accountable?

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.

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Gov. Christie — ” I don’t care about the community criticism…”; School Opens in Newark

School opened in Newark, New Jersey on Thursday, September 4, in the messy, patched together way that major transformations occur.  The question in this case, as Cami Anderson, the state’s appointed overseer superintendent imposed her controversial “One Newark” school choice plan on the school district, is why the confusion had to happen.  The citizens of Newark overwhelmingly elected a new mayor in the spring, Ras Baraka, a public school educator who ran on a platform of improving the public schools in Newark’s neighborhoods.  But Cami Anderson and Governor Chris Christie—who arrogantly said, “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.”—have persisted in their plans to close public schools and expand school choice.

As school began under “One Newark,” about 190 students were reported by WNYC News not to have been assigned a school yet and only 74 percent of students were reported to have found a place in one of their top five schools.  According to Bob Braun, the blogger and retired reporter from the Newark Star-Ledger, students with disabilities were not provided transportation at all on the first day.  There was considerable confusion as families tried to navigate a new shuttle bus service set up by the school district to support students who were assigned to schools far from home.  Newark’s public schools have not provided transportation in the past.

Braun has been persistent and prophetic in pointing out the racial implications of the Christie/Anderson experiment on Newark’s children.  I urge you to read all of his recent blog posts on the Newark schools, because he is forthright in naming how power politics and racial politics work in the biggest—and majority-African American—city of a wealthy state.

Here is Braun’s reflection on the meaning of a preliminary boycott organized by the Newark Student Union on the day before school started:  “Newark’s political and organizational leaders will, I know, scoff at this but right now, the leaders of the struggle against ‘One Newark’ and the privatization of public education are the hundreds of high school students who early this morning marched from three high schools to Military Park and who, tomorrow, are expected to take even bolder action against the policies of Cami Anderson, her puppet master Chris Christie, and Christie’s privatization guru, Cory Booker.  That doesn’t mean a few hundred high school students from Science Park, Arts, and Central will bring down Anderson, but what it does mean is this: For now, they are keeping the fight alive, they are serving as the conscience of the Newark community, and they are reminding everyone that real people—mothers and fathers and children—are hurt every day by the disruption caused by this mindless reorganization plan.”

On Thursday, September 4, the students’ school boycott and public demonstration blocked Broad Street in Newark for eight hours as schools opened under “One Newark.”  According to Braun, the high school students requested a meeting with Cami Anderson but were denied.  Braun reports that the mayor, Ras Baraka, posted his chief education policy adviser Lauren Wells all day at the protest.  She told the students, “they had ‘energized’ the fight against Anderson and for local control.  ‘We wanted to make sure you were safe,’ she said.”  Braun adds: “Although the children led the way yesterday with their act of civil disobedience, this is not child’s play. They were protecting the jobs and rights and income of adults… Those who believe the students’ fight is not every unionized teacher’s fight are simply burying their heads in the sand.”

Another YOUTUBE Video Wafts from Mountain Air of Aspen: Shows Chris Christie’s Arrogance

Here’s a good rule.  If you have political ambitions, don’t go to the Aspen Ideas Festival or the Aspen Institute, get comfortable among friends, get on a panel, and then make insulting remarks about the folks who are the key to your future.

Jonah Edelman disparaged school teachers.  His organization, Stand for Children, has not yet recovered its reputation.  In a new little book about the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, Micah Uetricht tells the story: “In June 2011, Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children, gave an afternoon talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of ‘thought leaders’….  During the talk, Edelman,whose organization initially came to Illinois at the invitation of billionaire former private equity manager Bruce Rauner, spoke with astonishing candor; he explained calmly the backroom politicking necessary to ‘jam the proposal down [teachers and their union’s’] throats.’  Soon after its beginnings in Illinois, his organization donated $600,000 to nine state legislative races in attempt to curry favor with State House Speaker Michael Madigan….”   Edelman’s influence helped pass a bill restricting teachers unions by requiring 75 percent of all the members of any teachers union be required to vote to authorize a strike.  Edelman bragged about this accomplishment at Aspen: “‘In effect, they wouldn’t have the ability to strike,’ Edelman says matter-of-factly in the tape. ‘They will never be able to muster the 75 percent threshold.'” (Strike for America, pp.  59-62)

Jonah Edelman forgot about youtube, where his speech went viral.  You may remember that, partly inspired by Edelman’s challenge, just a year later in June of 2012, 90 percent of the entire membership of the Chicago Teachers Union voted to authorize teachers to strike in September of 2012.

Now, thanks to Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column on Saturday, we all know, once again, that New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie disdains the people of Newark.  This time he said it in a July 24, 2014 panel discussion at the Aspen Institute.  We already knew, of course, that he isn’t concerned about the opinions of the people of New Jersey’s largest city from a speech he made earlier this year, the one in which he declared:  “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.”  Newark’s public schools have been under state control for two decades, and Christie is in charge through the leadership of the much despised overseer superintendent he has appointed, Cami Anderson.  But at Aspen he emphasized his contempt.

It is easy to see how Christie could forget himself.  Strauss quotes the description on the Aspen Institute’s website of the event at which Christie was speaking:  “A panel of Republican governors will address the economy, how they are building skills for a 21st century workforce and share their ideas for improving their state’s education, tax and immigration policies.  Featured special guests include Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.  The event will be moderated by Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson.”

In the new youtube clip of his speech at Aspen, Christie describes meeting with the new mayor, Ras Baraka, soon after Newark’s May 2014 election.  Baraka is a respected  former high school principal and champion of keeping the schools in Newark public instead of turning them over to charter operators.  Strauss quotes Christie describing his meeting with Baraka: “He came in to talk to me about his agenda and said he wanted to speak to me about the education system in Newark.  And I said to him listen, I’ll listen to whatever you have to say but the state runs the school system.  I am the decider, and you have nothing to do with it.”  You can hear the Aspen Institute audience laugh at Christie’s description of the meeting.

Strauss provides an excellent summary of the what has become a governance crisis in Newark due to the arrogance and political ineptitude of Christie and his appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson:

“Anderson, a former Teach For America corps member has come under intense attack for her ‘One Newark’ district reorganization plan—which includes plans to close some traditional schools; lay off more than 1,000 teachers and hire Teach For America recruits to fill some open spots; and create a single enrollment system for Newark’s 21 charters and 71 traditional public schools.  She has also been blasted for a management style that even reform supporters concede is dismissive, arrogant and ineffective.  This past April, dozens of members of the Newark clergy sent a letter to Christie warning him that Anderson’s reform efforts were causing ‘unnecessary instability’ in the city and that they are ‘concerned about the level of public anger we see growing in the community’ over the issue.”

(This blog has extensively covered the privatization and mismanagement of Newark’s schools by Anderson and her mentor Chris Christie, and the rise of Ras Baraka, the new mayor, in a race where school governance became the pivotal campaign issue here, herehere, here, here, here,  and here.)