Market-Based Newark, NJ School Reform Epitomizes Tragic Nationwide Trend

Dale Russakoff’s May 19th, New Yorker magazine piece, Schooled, on the public schools of Newark, New Jersey, is very much worth reading. Russakoff describes “one of the nation’s must audacious exercises in education reform.  The goal was not just to fix the Newark schools but to create a national model for how to turn around an entire school district.”   Russakoff tells this as a local story with a cast of local characters including former mayor Cory Booker, New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie, Facebook’s Mark Zukerberg (the $100 million donor), and Christopher Cerf and Cami Anderson—Booker operatives who were later appointed by Governor Christie to lead New Jersey’s education department and to become the state-designated caretaker superintendent of Newark’s schools. Late in the story we meet Shavar Jeffries—the eventual loser in last month’s Newark mayoral race and the darling of powerful hedge fund managers who invested heavily in the campaign—and Ras Baraka, Newark’s newly elected mayor, formerly a public school teacher and high school principal, and a supporter of improving the neighborhood schools instead of closing at least a quarter of them.  Newark’s public schools have been under state control for two decades, and Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan features district-wide school choice.

Of course the story of Newark’s public schools is a local story, but because Newark’s public education battle is emblematic of the market-based school “reform” battles going on in cities across the United States—including New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and other big cities—it is important to understand what is happening in Newark as part of a much broader narrative.  Owen Davis, in the May 28 issue of The Nation depicts Newark’s struggle in this larger context. His piece complements Russakoff’s and turns a local story into something much bigger.

Federal School Improvement Grant turnaround options (These grants are for schools whose scores fall in the bottom 5 percent across the United States.) include firing the principal and at least half the staff or closing the so-called failing school.  But in many cities, closing schools and firing staff have also become hallmarks of what appears to be a bigger school choice movement to turn schools over to the charter management companies.  Davis profiles Hawthorne Avenue School, located in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Newark’s South Ward.  In the past the school has struggled but, while its overall scores remain relatively low, for three years running it has very significantly and consistently improved performance. Teachers are collaborating under a strong principal, and parents are involved and organized. No matter. Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan offers no grace for Hawthorne.  Next fall the school is to be reduced from a K-8 school to a school serving only the primary grades.  Grades K-1 will be operated by TEAM academy charters and the district will operate grades K-4 with new staff.  All teachers must reapply.

Davis writes: “The upheaval at Hawthorne comes amidst one of the most dizzying spells of school reform a city has seen since Hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans into a laboratory for market-based reforms.  In January, the district suspended Hawthorne’s principal and four others after they inveighed against One Newark, the reorganization plan.  Superintendent Anderson’s appearance at community forums generates such protest that she’s stopped attending them altogether.  Reforms under her tenure have spurred marches and student walk-outs. In April, seventy-seven faith leaders signed a letter urging Anderson to halt One Newark for ‘producing irreversible changes and fomenting widespread outrage.'”  Anderson has moved to lay off more than a thousand teachers across the school district.  The charter sector that now serves a quarter of Newark’s students is expected to grow its share to 40 percent by 2016.  New Jersey will continue to operate Newark’s schools as a state-run enterprise, with, as Governor Christie declared, little concern the opinion of Newark’s citizens: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark—not them.”

Zuckerberg’s gift of $100 million to Newark’s schools has neither fixed up old buildings nor replaced staff.  Davis describes cuts including social workers, counselors and school nurses.  $20 million thus far has been paid to consultants, including $1.86 million to Global Education Advisors, the company founded by Chris Cerf before he became the state’s education commissioner and hired the firm he had founded to begin plans for One Newark.  According to Davis, 40 percent of money paid to consultants has left New Jersey.  Despite that the state’s court-approved school funding remedy required that poor districts use an infusion of state aid to pay for counselors, social workers, parent liaisons, and tutors, Davis quotes a Christie spokesman who decried “the failed assumption of the last three decades that more money equals better education.”

State officials running Newark’s schools favor a market model, with the charter sector growing by 40 percent in the past four years. As students leave Newark’s schools for charters, writes Davis, they “take 90 percent of their funding with them.”  Davis quotes Andy Smarick, a former New Jersey deputy education commissioner  and (these days) a prominent advocate for the “creative destruction” of urban school districts: “The process meant securing friendly leadership, attracting big-name charters and roping in philanthropic allies.  As the district becomes a ‘financially unsustainable marginal player,’ he wrote, ‘eventually the financial crisis will become a political crisis.'”

An early casualty of the Christie-Cerf-Smarick-Anderson brand of school reform was the Global Village project, intended like the Harlem Children’s Zone to surround students and their families with medical and social services to supplement educational investment in the area’s schools. New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera was deeply involved in the development of Global Village.  Davis writes:  “Global Village’s demise also highlighted what some might call the hypocrisy of the market-based reform movement, which consistently emphasizes that its sole purpose is to improve the lives of poor children. While Noguera’s initiative bore a strong resemblance to the Harlem Children’s Zone, in its holistic philosophy toward urban education as well as in its name, it differed in one salient aspect: Global Village worked in district schools, not charters.  Perhaps that difference helps explain why the school reform movement that celebrates Harlem Children’s Zone was happy to see Global Village languish.”

Davis quotes Noguera, who has worked in school districts across the United States to try to address the impact of poverty in children’s lives while at the same time strengthening public schools: “It’s reflective of a larger problem across the country with the way we approach school reform.  It’s often driven by these outsiders who have no ties, no history with a community, no long-term relationship.”

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Backlash Against Governor Christie’s Overseer Superintendent Grows in Newark

Articles at Politico Pro are almost always behind a pay wall, but this morning somehow Diane Ravitch has forwarded yesterday’s piece about the school crisis in the Newark, New Jersey’s public schools, Chris Christie Faces New Uproar in State’s Largest City.

The reporter, Stephanie Simon, does an excellent job of tracing the escalation of tension in Newark  as Governor Chris Christie, his appointed state overseer superintendent Cami Anderson, and outgoing state school commissioner Christopher Cerf attempt to close so called “failing” schools, most of them located in Newark’s poorest black neighborhoods, silence principals who have spoken out, and now fire masses of experienced school teachers by overriding the due-process protections in the union contract.

Neither Cami Anderson nor Christopher Cerf is a career educator; both were trained at the Broad Academy, where financier Eli Broad’s short program turns business and military leaders into superintendents.  Broad-trained leaders tend to endorse school closure and privatization as strategies for so-called school turnaround.  In Newark today Anderson and Cerf— imposing policy on a majority African American school district—are white.

Ravitch also shares an interview published by Salon with Ras Baraka, a school principal and member of Newark’s city council, who is running for Mayor of Newark.  Baraka shares his concerns about Anderson’s tenure as the state’s appointed superintendent of Newark’s schools.

Diane Ravitch also shares a letter sent yesterday to Governor Christie by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.  In the letter Weingarten asks Christie to end two decades’ of ineffective state takeover of the Newark Schools. “Governor, the Newark community has made it known: They don’t want mass closings, mass firings or mass privatization. They want to regain local control of the district. They want to reclaim the promise of public education in Newark.  I ask you to listen. Give the people of Newark their schools and their future back.”

This blog has recently covered the ongoing imperious attack by state leaders and their appointees on one of New Jersey’s poorest and most vulnerable school districts here and here.  Parents and community leaders in Newark are rising up and pushing back.

NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf Pushes Corporate School Reform As He Leaves His Position

Christopher Cerf will leave his position as Governor Chris Christie’s New Jersey state school commissioner this coming Friday, February 28,  to join Amplify, the school assessment, consulting, and tablet division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.  Cerf is leaving to work for his former boss, Joel Klein, who served as New York City’s school chancellor when Cerf was an assistant.  Perhaps because of Cerf’s pending departure, there is much scurrying around by those wanting quickly to solidify New Jersey’s steps toward so called “school reform” undertaken during his tenure.  Here are two changes being pushed through in this final week.

Newark is a school district operating under state control.  Cami Anderson, Newark’s state-appointed, Broad Academy-trained, caretaker superintendent, has asked Cerf to waive the seniority rights of perhaps 700 teachers to pave the way for mass firings and replacement of half of them, it is speculated, by cheaper Teach for America (TFA) recruits.  Anderson is a former TFA teacher and an executive with TFA.

Longtime New Jersey journalist Bob Braun reports that the mass firings are confirmed by sources in the teacher’s union and on the website of the Walton Family Foundation, which has “announced that they will support the recruitment, training and support of nearly 370 Newark area teachers over the next two years.”  Anderson’s request for Cerf’s approval is to be discussed at a meeting of the Newark School Board later today.  Cerf’s signature “would permit their firing without resort to the detenuring process.”  “To fire tenured teachers she (Anderson) must gain state approval of a ‘waiver’ of seniority rules.  Cerf, a strong backer of Anderson’s actions, is expected to grant the waiver.”

According to Braun, “The mass layoff of experienced teachers and their replacement by new and untrained college graduates is part of Anderson’s ‘One Newark’ plan that seeks to expand charter school enrollments, close conventional neighborhood public schools, and sell off school property. ‘Right-sizing’ staff and hiring ‘quality’ teachers are also mentioned in the latest version of the plan.”

And yesterday Diane Ravitch reported that Cerf is also expected this week to sign a request for the right-to-expand by Hoboken’s HoLa Dual Language Charter School.  HoLa charter school serves 11 percent children who qualify for free-and-reduced price lunch while the district has 72 percent of children who qualify.  While Hoboken’s school district is 25 percent white, HoLa is 61 percent white.  The district is 55 percent Hispanic; HoLa is 29 percent Hispanic.  Ravitch shares a powerful letter from Hoboken’s school superintendent, Dr. Mark Toback, asking Commissioner Cerf to deny the HoLa Dual Language Charter School request.

Toback describes unsustainable financial pressure on the one-square-mile school district as the charter school allocation has tripled since 2008.  “if you carry this pattern out to 2018 with the total requested expansion of HoLa to 405 students (an increase of almost 100 students) you can see how our traditional public district would fall into a state of crisis.  I do not believe that such a result is the intent of the charter movement and I know that such a result does not allow for a thorough and efficient education for all children in this community.”

Toback notes that while HoLa charter school does enroll some students who present special needs, the school and Hoboken’s three other charters “do not enroll students with significant disabilities.”

Toback also explains that charter schools can accept students with serious special needs and assign them to special schools outside the school district, but New Jersey law then requires the Hoboken public school district to pay for the special services it has no role in selecting.  Toback describes: “the incentive that exists statewide for charter schools to place students in out-of-district placements… By code, the cost for charter students placed out of district does not go to the charter school, but back to the traditional public school system.  As a result, a financial incentive is created for charter schools to place significantly disabled students in out-of-district placements as opposed to educating the students. Even more perplexing is the fact that we have very little input about those placements.  Despite the fact that the traditional district is responsible to pay for the out-of-district educational programs plus transportation costs, extended school year programs, and other costs, the charter school case managers remain responsible for carrying out the IEP.”

It will be important to watch how much damage Commissioner Cerf inflicts on New Jersey’s traditional public school districts in this final week as he leaves his position.

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.”

New Jersey Civil Rights Attorney Says School Reform Must Consider Real Issues: Segregation and Poverty

On this day as we reflect upon the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, an article by New Jersey civil rights attorney Paul Tractenberg is a sobering reminder that in public education we have a long, long way to go.  Tractenberg describes what he calls the two school systems of New Jersey:

“One, the predominantly white, well-to-do and suburban system, performs at relatively high levels, graduating and sending on to higher education most of its students.  The other, the overwhelmingly black, Latino, and poor urban system, struggles to achieve basic literacy and numeracy for its students, to close pernicious achievement gaps, and to graduate a representative share of its students.  These differences have been mitigated to a degree by Abbott v. Burke‘s enormous infusion of state dollars into the poor urban districts, and some poor urban districts like Union City have been able to effect dramatic improvements.  But neither Abbott nor any other state action has done anything to change the underlying demographics.”

Tractenberg describes a new report he co-authored, released jointly by Rutgers University’s Institute on Education Law and Policy and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, that focuses on apartheid schools “with 1 percent or fewer white students” and intensely segregated schools with “10 percent or fewer white students.” According to the report, “almost half of all black students and more than 40 percent of all Latino students in New Jersey attend schools that are overwhelmingly segregated” —falling into one of these two categories. “Compounding the problem is that the schools those students attend are doubly segregated because a majority, often an overwhelming majority, of the students are low-income.”

Tractenberg depicts the school reform strategy of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf as a radical agenda that ignores segregation and poverty: long-term state takeover of school districts; closure of so-called “failing” schools; privatization; attacks on teachers unions; evaluation of teachers based on students’ test scores; and promotion of vouchers. (Newark’s schools have been under state control since 1995.  Just this past week, Newark’s state-appointed overseer superintendent, Cami Anderson, fired four principals for speaking up at a public meeting to oppose her plan to close a third of Newark’s public schools.)

Tractenberg concludes: “‘evidence’ regarding the Christie/Cerf agenda shows that: long-term state operation of large urban districts is an unmitigated disaster; private-for-profit operation of public schools, public funding of private, mostly parochial schools, and most public charter schools have produced little or no substantial and sustained improvements in student achievement; replacing existing public schools with experimental “turnaround’ schools is no assurance of substantial and enduring improvement; and school vouchers have been overwhelmingly rejected by the public every time they have been put to a referendum.”

Tractenberg suggests that his own ideas —merging smaller school districts, creating county-wide school districts, creating a magnet school program modeled on Connecticut’s—are no more radical than the Christie/Cerf agenda.  He would acknowledge, however, that developing the political will for policies that will challenge power, privilege and attitudes about race and class is going to be as difficult today as it was when Dr. King tried to undertake a campaign against poverty toward the end of his life.  Tractenberg suggests we need an informed and thoroughgoing public discussion about racism and poverty and school segregation, a conversation that almost nobody is having these days in America.