What happened in Newark, NJ yesterday should matter to you no matter where you live in America. It is the story of the triumph of participatory democracy over a system flooded with money. And if you care about the future of public education, you will be especially interested, because the fate of Newark’s public schools became the central issue in this campaign. The winner, Ras Baraka, a high school principal, confronted the wave of “corporate” school reform and privatization that has become Newark’s (bipartisan) status quo under former Democratic Mayor Cory Booker and Republican Governor Chris Christie and his state appointed Newark school overseers.
According to Bob Braun, blogger and former 50 year reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, “Ras Baraka, a high school principal and the son of a poet, yesterday easily defeated a Wall Street-backed promoter of school privatization to become the next mayor of Newark. Baraka’s victory repudiated the policies not just of his rival, Shavar Jeffries, but those of Gov. Chris Christie, former Mayor Cory Booker, and state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson, who is trying to close neighborhood public schools and replace them with privately run charter schools.” Braun continues: “Wall Street financiers and hedge-fund managers—strong supporters of former Mayor Cory Booker—poured $3 million into the Jeffries campaign, including $300,000 in street money that went to young men and women in the city, many of whom apparently took the money and then urged voters to vote for Baraka.”
Mark Webber, who blogs under the name Jersey Jazzman, reflected last Sunday on the issues at stake in this race. Here is a shortened and compressed version of his analysis: “Democracies allow for full participation in governance by all people, regardless of their class status; Newark, however, is currently being threatened with the loss of its autonomy simply because it is an impoverished community… Democracies support the development of a middle-class; Newark, however suffers from segregation, taxation, and economic policies that all but guarantee that many of its citizens will remain mired in poverty… Democracies allow citizens to direct the education of their children; Newark, however, allows its citizens no say in how its schools are run… Democracies engage in elections where campaign financing is transparent and driven by the citizens affected by the elections; Newark, however, is engaged in a mayoral race dominated by shadowy interest groups outside the city… Shavar Jeffries may well be a good man, but his campaign has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with our politics these days. If Jeffries wins, it’s a confirmation that America’s cities—the ones where working-class people of color are allowed to live—are being ruled from the outside. Jeffries’ election will confirm these cities’ institutions have been co-opted for cynical , self-serving interests, fully at the service of political machines and plutocrats.”
But Shavar Jeffries and the corporate investors from Education Reform Now lost this election. Ras Baraka won.
Bob Braun reports that Education Reform Now, which donated heavily to the Jeffries campaign, is not required to list its specific donations, because it is supposedly a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Here, according to Braun, however, from its website is the list of board members of Education Reform Now: Charles H. Ledley, Board chair and an analyst at Highfields Capital Management; John Petrey founder and managing principal at Sessa Capital, formerly at Gotham Capital and Gotham Asset Management and co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform and chair of Success Academy Charter Schools in NYC; Sidney Hawkins Gargiulo, a partner at Covey Capital and big supporter of NewSchools Venture Fund, and Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies in NYC; Brien Ziet of Charter Bridge Capital; John Sabat of Cubist Systematic Strategies; and Michael Sabat of Sanford C. Bernstein. Braun adds that Education Reform Now, “is a charitable organization—it solicits tax-exempt donations and is not supposed to engage in electoral politics.”
That this election was primarily a referendum on the One Newark school privatization plan of Christie’s appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, is clear in this youtube version of a TV ad paid for on Baraka’s behalf by the Working Families Alliance. If you watch it, you will hear Governor Christie twice declare: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark—not them.”
In fact, Cami Anderson’s One Newark school closure and privatization plan became so contentious that Jeffries was forced to distance himself from Cami Anderson. According to Bob Braun, “Jeffries, a close associate of Anderson, finally did repudiate her plan but it was too late in the race.”
Anderson has refused to attend school board meetings for two months now and has spent recent weeks at national conferences outside Newark. There are rumors that she may be forced out. It is known that the implementation of One Newark is in disarray. The school district has repeatedly delayed announcing the school choice placements of children to their schools for next fall and has struggled to put together a workable transportation plan for a district that has until now relied on neighborhood schools. Many parents have sought to keep their children in neighborhood schools and have refused to fill out school choice applications. This blog has covered the school controversy in Newark here, here, here, here, and here.
Given the fiscal climate for poor cities and the power of money in politics these days, Ras Baraka will face enormous challenges. But this morning we must celebrate the people of Newark, who voted to elect Ras Baraka and to protect their democracy and their public schools.