Newark Mayor, Ras Baraka, Pleads for Federal Civil Rights Intervention in City’s Schools

Newark’s mayor, Ras Baraka, has an op-ed in this morning’s NY Times that condemns New Jersey’s 19 year state control of Newark’s public schools and the  malfunctioning school reform plan imposed this fall by Governor Chris Christie’s overseer superintendent Cami Anderson.  Baraka pleads for federal intervention to restore authority for Newark’s schools to the mayor temporarily, and as soon as possible, “to return control to an elected school board with full powers.”  Newark has an elected school board, but under state control, the locally elected school board lacks any authority to govern the district.  Cami Anderson has refused for several months even to attend its meetings.

Last spring Governor Christie publicly insulted the parents and citizens of Newark when he declared, “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.”

Baraka describes how poorly schools have functioned this fall since Anderson’s One Newark school choice plan was launched: “Consider the reports I’ve received of Barringer High School (formerly Newark High School).  Three weeks into the school year, students still did not have schedules.  Students who had just arrived in this country and did not speak English sat for days in the school library without placement or instruction.  Seniors were placed in classes they had already taken, missing the requirements they’d need to graduate.  Even the school lunch system broke down, with students served bread and cheese in lieu of hot meals.”

Neither did One Newark school choice work as promised: “Under One Newark’s universal enrollment scheme, a secret algorithm determined what school was the ‘best fit’ for each child.  Often, this ended up placing each child in a family in a different school, none of which was the neighborhood school the parents chose… To cap it all, last year the school system operated with a deficit of $58 million.”

Baraka reports that he has “written to the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights in support of the lawsuits that parents, students, advocates and educators in our city have brought, requesting that the federal government intercede.”

Meanwhile early last week, Superintendent Cami Anderson delivered a two-hour state-of-the-schools presentation to defend the launch earlier this fall of One Newark and to brag about what she says is improved student achievement.  However, the New Jersey Spotlight reports that, “the details to back up her arguments and claims have been more elusive. Anderson was repeatedly asked Tuesday for actual data, including the district’s latest results on the state’s testing for 2013-14. She said those results are available on the district’s website, but despite requests to provide the links, nothing has been forthcoming from her office two days later.”

The New Jersey Spotlight also explains that Anderson, “has been at odds with her locally elected school board since her arrival in 2011. Last month, after no-confidence votes and calls for her resignation, the board voted almost unanimously to freeze her pay and block other initiatives. She hasn’t attended a public board meeting in months.  Meanwhile, protests continue from activists and student groups opposed to the “One Newark” reorganization plan, including one on Monday in support of a federal civil-rights complaint alleging that closing and consolidation of schools disproportionately hurt black and Hispanic students and families.”

Ras Baraka was elected mayor by an overwhelming margin last spring after a campaign whose central issue was return of democratic control of the school district to Newark’s citizens.  Before he ran for mayor, Baraka was a much respected high school principal in Newark.

I urge you to read Mayor Baraka’s commentary in this morning’s NY Times.  This blog has extensively covered the state’s autocratic imposition of Cami Anderson’s One Newark school choice plan on the city’s schools herehere , hereherehere, here, herehere, and here.

Why Checks and Balances Need to Include the Courts

Just last week the Education Law Center, whose attorneys have litigated the landmark New Jersey school funding case in Abbott v. Burke, announced that the Education Law Center has “joined the legal teams in Maisto v. State of New York and Bacon v. NJ Department of Education, lawsuits on behalf of students in 8 Small City New York school districts and 16 poor, rural, New Jersey districts, respectively.  These cases challenge deep resource deficits and unconstitutionally low funding by each State, in violation of their state constitutions.”

It would be so nice to think that when school districts are short of money, citizens would raise their taxes to pay for what’s needed for the children. What does it say about our society that funding our schools has become deeply contentious?

According to the Education Law Center, the towns bringing the lawsuit in New York are Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie, and Utica. Together they serve 55,000 students.  All have poverty rates over 50 percent; in at least one community the poverty rate is 94 percent. “All have low property wealth and income and have experienced substantial shortfalls and state cuts in school funding in recent years.”

In New Jersey, attorneys say that a remedial order from the New Jersey Department of Education in 2009 ordered that students in 16 rural districts be fully funded under the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.  The state has not complied.  David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center commented: “Governor Chris Christie’s stubborn resistance to investing in our children leaves no alternative but to take appropriate legal action.”  In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to promise tax cuts as part of his platform for reelection this coming November.

Being free from such court oversight to enforce the mandates of a state constitution appeals to Chad Readler, a Columbus, Ohio attorney who chairs Ohio’s Constitutional Modernization Commission.  Readler is also, according to Karen Kesler of StateImpact Ohio, the chairman of the Ohio Alliance of Public Charter Schools.  Kesler updates earlier reports that Readler’s goal is to have the Constitutional Modernization Commission remove protection for school funding from Ohio’s constitution by deleting this clause: “The General Assembly shall provide and fund a thorough and efficient system of common school throughout the state.” Kesler quotes Readler:  “That language has been used as a vehicle to take those disputes to court and have judges set our education policy rather than boards of education and legislatures.  And in my mind that’s a concern.  I think that boards of education and legislatures are better equipped to address education policy issues.”  (This blog most recently posted on the Ohio controversy here.)

Kesler interviews members of the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House serving on the Constitutional Modernization Commission who agree with Readler and want to remove the language that makes school funding justiciable in Ohio.  They say they want the Ohio Constitution to protect school choice instead.  Kesler also quotes Charlie Wilson, a professor at the college of law at the Ohio State University, who “fears if that language is removed, there would be no right to public education in Ohio, because the U.S. Supreme court has already held that education is not a federal fundamental right and has left it to the states.” Wilson comments, “If there’s not some kind of enforcement mechanism, then it’s very easy for the General Assembly to ignore the Constitution, and then you get to the question of why even bother having a Constitution.”

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.)

New Jersey Columnist: Cry for Newark

Bob Braun was a reporter for 50 years for the Newark Star-Ledger.  These days he blogs about the public school crisis in Newark, New Jersey.  Newark’s public schools have been under state control for two decades.  As in most places, state takeover has never worked in Newark.  Today the strings are being pulled by Governor Chris Christie and Cami Anderson—the state-appointed overseer superintendent, alternatively trained at the Broad Academy and formerly employed by Joel Klein in New York.

Anderson has brought a plan, One Newark, to take over neighborhood schools, bring in KIPP and other charter management companies, and give parents school choice.  Newark has erupted this spring as parents have continued to defend their neighborhood public schools.  This blog has recently covered the school crisis in Newark here, herehere, and here.

Last week Braun described the botched roll-out of Anderson’s One Newark plan.  By mid-April, Anderson had promised to announce to parents their children’s school choice match assignments for next fall.  But in a letter posted on the school district’s website and notes sent home with children in backpacks, she delayed the assignments until mid-May.  Anderson and her staff have been unable to finalize a transportation plan, there have been problems placing students with special needs, and it turns out many parents did not apply for school choice, which means there must be a second application process.  According to Braun, “One Newark was not only unworkable in design but now the state regime running the schools is so incompetent it can’t figure out what to do about the transportation and special education problems it created.”  Anderson “still doesn’t know how to handle the placement of special education students, especially those whose parents might want to go to charter schools that are unprepared to deal with them.”

According to New Jersey Spotlight, just last week in the midst of the school district controversy, Cami Anderson was awarded  promised bonuses from Governor Christie’s administration for reaching performance goals.  Anderson receives a base salary of $247,500, but she was awarded $32,992 in bonus payments: “And according to details released this past week by the administration, she continues to hit a majority of performance goals that have gained her tens of thousands of dollars in additional pay.”  Her new bonus is for hitting five of seven targets that “included both qualitative and quantitative measures, from new evaluation systems for principals to test score gains in individual schools.”

In a very moving post yesterday, Bob Braun describes the plight of parents and children trapped in this controversy.  Cry for Newark describes the pleas of Grace Sergio, the outgoing president of the Hawthorne Avenue School parent organization, and students from the school who made formal presentations to the school board (elected but rendered powerless by state control) charged with implementing One Newark.  The protests have become so contentious that Cami Anderson has stuck by her announcement several weeks ago that she will no longer attend these public meetings.

After presenting data that Hawthorne Avenue School has met the demanded achievement goals—first in the city in student growth, third in the state in student growth, seventh in Newark in academic achievement—Sergio asked Newark’s school board, “What more do we need to do?”

Brawn writes: “Anderson’s treatment of Hawthorne—and similar schools throughout the state’s largest district—has been a nightmare…  She stripped the school of its librarians, its counselors, its attendance personnel.  She has ignored constant pleas to repair crumbling walls and leaking ceilings—promising repair money only after she gave the building to TEAM Academy, the local name for KIPP charters, and the Brick schools (which will co-locate in the building).”

Braun notes that parents of 268 of the school’s 340 students chose Hawthorne for next year when they submitted the Universal Application.  The rest might have done the same, but Hawthorne will no longer be a K-8 school; its charters will serve children only through the fourth grade.

Braun concludes: “Sad. There’s a word rarely heard in the context of the state’s war on Newark’s neighborhood public schools. Sad. Yet the story of how a cruelly tone-deaf state bureaucrat named Cami Anderson is singlehandedly destroying a community’s neighborhood schools is just that. Sad.  And nothing more illustrates that sadness than the brave but probably futile effort of one successful neighborhood school to remain alive despite Anderson’s promise to give it to privatized educational entrepreneurs who include former business partners of the recently resigned state education commissioner… It’s about money and power and greed.”  (Thanks to Diane Ravitch for circulating Braun’s powerful column, Cry for Newark, late last night.)

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.

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.”