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.”