States Fail at “Running the Local Schools,” Despite What Chris Christie Says

Public schools are human institutions, places where adults work to foster the intellectual, linguistic, mathematical, social, ethical, emotional, and physical growth and development of children. Schools must be structured to foster a climate of physical and emotional safety and support. They need to connect with families in a natural way, for parents and guardians are children’s primary teachers.  Children thrive when there is mutuality between the school and the family.  Schools are primary social institutions in the neighborhood, places where the interests of the community converge.

The novelist Ivan Doig, who has set most of his books in the tiny homesteading communities of northern Montana’s high plains, captures this understanding in his novel about the meaning of a remote one room school.  The narrator, looking back at his seventh grade year, describes how he came to understand the importance of his school one day as he gazed at the prairie where it is set: “So there in the dwindling light of the afternoon I tried to take in that world between the manageable horizons.  The cutaway bluffs where the Marias River lay low and hidden were the limit of field of vision in one direction.  In the other was the edge of the smooth-buttered plain leading to Westwater…. Closer, though, was where I found the longest look into things.  Out beyond the play area, there were round rims of shadow on the patch of prairie where the horses we rode to school had eaten the grass down in circles around their picket stakes. Perhaps that pattern drew my eye to what I had viewed every day of my school life but never until then truly registered: the trails in the grass that radiated in as many directions as there were homesteads with children, all converging to that schoolyard spot where I stood unnaturally alone. Forever and a day could go by, and that feeling will never leave me.  Of knowing, in that instant, the central power of that country school in all our lives… Everyone I could think of had something at stake in the school…”  The narrator names the ways the community owns the school—his father and the other members of the school board, the men who built the school and the home for the teacher, the mothers who send their children off on horses in all weather, the teacher, the students. “We all answered, with some part of our lives, to the pull of this small knoll of prospect, this isolated square of school ground.” (The Whistling Season, pp 120-21)

While the portrait Doig paints is a fictional ideal, it captures a model of education encompassing public purpose and public ownership, a model described more formally by John Adams in 1785: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.  There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”  The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set aside one section of each township for a school.

Contrast these attitudes and assumptions about public schools to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s understanding: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark—not them.”

Christie was responding to a firestorm of local criticism of his administration’s management of the schools in Newark.  Newark’s schools have been under state control for nearly two decades. Controversy about state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson—her high-handed  One Newark plan to close schools and rapidly expand charter schools, her punishment of staff who dared to disagree with her—became the central issue in the Newark mayor’s race in May, with Ras Baraka, a school principal and vocal opponent of the policies of Anderson and Christie the winner.  (This blog has extensively covered the privatization and mismanagement of Newark’s schools by Anderson here, here, here, here,  and here.)

Sadly, despite his recent electoral victory, Mayor Ras Baraka does not control the schools of Newark; neither does the community.  Bob Braun, fifty-year reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger and now a blogger, recently despaired about the loss of community control: “The political power of both the city’s clergy and its public employee unions is non-existent.  The election of Ras Baraka as mayor did nothing to stop or even slow down the “One Newark” plan.  The privatization of the city’s schools will continue unabated.”  Braun reports that in June, Anderson’s contract was renewed despite that she has refused to attend public school board meetings; that she has rewarded her friends and their friends with huge contracts; that she has suspended building principals for speaking out against One Newark and told the principal of the city’s most successful high school that he must reapply for his job, fired another principal at a high achieving school, and downgraded the evaluations of other principals who were formerly highly rated but who have since criticized her leadership; that she has given huge raises to administrators she imported after laying off essential school staff to cut costs; that she has continued to close neighborhood schools and imposed a chaotic and unproven open-enrollment plan that requires parents to apply; and that she ignored the pleas of 77 members of the local clergy to place a moratorium on her plan.  Braun comments on Cami Anderson’s boss, Governor Chris Christie: “And, to Chris Christie, the governor of the state, the aspirations of the people of Newark are like mud stuck on the bottom of his shoe—he can just scrape it off on the nearest curb and keep on walking.”

Christie’s arrogance extends well beyond Newark. Across New Jersey we are watching the imposition by the state of corporate takeover in the poorest big city school districts without consideration of the wishes of the citizens of particular school districts.  Anthony Cody, who writes a column for Education Week, just published a guest post—this time about Camden—by Julia Sass Rubin, a professor of public policy at Rutgers and visiting professor at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.  Rubin reports that, led by appointed Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, several charter chains, seeking to expand rapidly, exerted influence in Trenton to get a state law amended to permit them to locate in temporary facilities and without any public review and comment by the citizens of Camden. “Rather than stopping their illegal activities… the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains and the Camden Superintendent turned to their friends in the legislature to ‘fix’ the problems by amending the Urban Hope legislation so that what had been illegal could now be legal.”

According to Rubin, “The negative fiscal impact of the renaissance charter program is already being felt on the Camden District’s public schools.  Hundreds of teachers and staff members were fired this spring because of projected budget shortfalls caused by payments the district has to make to renaissance and regular charter school…  Camden parents already lament the constant harassment by those charter chains, whose representatives approach them at every venue, come to their homes, and even try to recruit their children on school playgrounds.”

Camden, like Newark, is under state control.  “Camden parents understand that the superintendent works for the governor rather than for them… The District has no elected Board of Education and even the appointed Board that served prior to the 2013 state takeover of the District has been replaced by individuals willing to rubber stamp the Christie Administration’s actions.”  “Rouhanifard, the Camden superintendent, is undeniably allied with the charter chains.” “There is even a publicly-available blueprint that details the Christie Administration’s intentions to convert Camden into a New Orleans style all-charter district….”

I do not know of one school district anywhere that has been improved by state takeover.  Historically states take over school districts to cut costs. The big-city school districts taken over are always places where family poverty is concentrated, where the tax base is in decline, and where middle class families have already taken their children to the suburbs. The story of Newark and Camden is also the story of Detroit, and Philadelphia.  The goal is efficient management, not school improvement.  I have never heard discussed an infusion of state aid in such situations.

Linda Darling-Hammond, “wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity….”  (The Flat World and Education, p 164)   I believe the most important priority in American public education must be to stop pretending the imposition of “corporate” and “portfolio” school privatization is some kind of cure for inequality and to invest in improving the schools across the poorest neighborhoods of America’s big cities.  Successful school improvement cannot be done to a community; it must be accomplished with the community.