Cami Anderson Moves On: Will Newark School Leadership Begin to Consider Community’s Input?

Bob Braun, retired reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, broke the story on his blog over the weekend that Cami Anderson, Newark’s much despised state-overseer superintendent of schools, will resign this week and will be replaced on an interim basis by Christopher Cerf, Governor Chris Christie’s former commissioner of education, who, since he left New Jersey state government, has been on staff at Amplify, the tablet and on-line curriculum division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.  The Newark Star-Ledger confirmed the report yesterday, adding that Anderson will step down by July 8 and that Cerf’s appointment will need to be approved by the state board of education.

Despite persistent protests from Newark’s mayor, Ras Baraka, and the city’s elected school board, whose public meetings she has refused to attend since January of 2014, Cami Anderson has ruthlessly imposed her “One Newark” school reform plan to close neighborhood schools, open charters, and fire dedicated school principals.  She testified before the state legislature’s committee that is responsible for overseeing the state takeover of Newark’s schools only after repeated delays and only under extreme political pressure.  When she and her boss, New Jersey’s governor Christie were criticized for the arrogance of Newark’s state school management, Christie notoriously declared: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.” Newark’s schools have been under state takeover for twenty years, despite evidence that state management has served neither the children nor the community.  Here are the posts on this blog tagged “Cami Anderson.”

Braun reports that Anderson recently changed her mind about imposing “turnarounds” on two of the city’s high schools: “In the last few days, Anderson also has caved in on significant decisions—to make both East Side High School and Weequahic High School, both iconic institutions in the city, so-called ‘turnaround’ schools.”

Braun reports further that the state school board has recently been listening to Cami Anderson’s critics in Newark including the elected (but powerless under state oversight) school board in Newark: “The breakthrough, according to sources who would not speak for the record, came in private talks between school board officials and members of the state board of education.  Mark Biedron, the president of the state school board, apparently has come to Newark and initiated ‘conversations’ with critics of Anderson.  Four members of the (local) school board—(Ariagna) Perello, its president, Marques Aquil-Lewis, its vice president, and Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson and Donald Jackson spoke at a state school board meeting earlier this month. ‘Too much has been happening for the state school board to ignore,’ said one source, citing the decision by Lamont Thomas, principal of nationally known Science Park High, to resign, and the extraordinary decision by the principal of Central High School, Sharnee Brown, to accuse Anderson of breaking the law by transferring special education students to her school without adequate services.”  Braun adds that students walked out of Newark’s high schools on May 22 in protest.  Students occupied Anderson’s office for several days earlier this spring in protest.

While a second Star-Ledger report claims that Chris Cerf “will be recommended for a three-year contract consistent with initial contracts in other state-operated districts,” Braun’s sources told him that Cerf will serve only in an interim capacity. Cerf, the former New Jersey commissioner of education (who initially appointed Cami Anderson in Newark), left New Jersey government to work with Joel Klein at Rupert Murdoch’s school tablet and curriculum division, Amplify.  The News Corp. has been restructuring this week, and Cerf appears to be out of a job.  Earlier this spring, Bloomberg reported that Amplify has not been making a profit: “By the end of June, Murdoch’s News Corp. will have invested more than $1 billion in Amplify, its division that makes the tablets, sells an online curriculum and offers testing services… It reported a $193 million loss last year, and its annual revenue represented only about 1 percent of News Corp.’s sales of $8.6 billion.”  “The education effort has been riddled with technology failures, fragile equipment, a disconnect between tablet marketers and content developers, and an underestimation of how difficult it would be to win market share from entrenched rivals such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co. in the kindergarten to high school education market.”  According to Bloomberg, barely over a third of classrooms in the United States have internet capacity and speed adequate to serve classrooms of children online simultaneously.  Faster internet speed costs five times more per student, an amount that is prohibitively expensive for many school districts.

Braun reports wide speculation that the deal involving Anderson’s resignation and Cerf’s pending interim appointment also includes a promise that Newark’s elected board of education will be able to help choose the next permanent superintendent: “A bigger shocker, however, is that the school officials and other sources expect the (local school) board to be given a role in selecting a permanent replacement for Anderson.”

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka is reported by the Star-Ledger to have commented, “I would need some assurances that local control is real.”

I hope Braun’s information is correct that an effort is under way to consider the will of the citizens of Newark in the operation of their public schools.

Bob Herbert Explains “How Millionaires and Billionaires Are Ruining Our Schools”

Did you see Bob Herbert’s wonderful new article, The Plot Against Public Education, in Politico Magazine?  If not, you should read it.  Bob Herbert was a regular New York Times columnist between 1993 and 2011, when he left to join Demos and to write the book, Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America, from which this article is excerpted.  The book was published this week.

Herbert’s subject is the role of money and the power of elites to shape education policy in America these days.  Herbert skewers Bill Gates: “When a multibillionaire gets an idea, just about everybody leans in to listen.”  And he notes that when  Bill Gates’ “small high schools” experiment utterly failed, there weren’t the kind of consequences we might see if a public school district, for example, failed in a similar school restructuring. “There was very little media coverage of this experiment gone terribly wrong. A billionaire had an idea. Many thousands had danced to his tune. It hadn’t worked out. C’est la vie.

“This hit-or-miss attitude—let’s try this, let’s try that—has been a hallmark of school reform efforts in recent years… But if there is one broad approach… that the corporate-style reformers and privatization advocates have united around, it’s the efficacy of charter schools…  Corporate leaders, hedge fund managers and foundations with fabulous sums of money at their disposal lined up in support of charter schools, and politicians were quick to follow.  They argued that charters would not only boost test scores and close achievement gaps but also make headway on the vexing problem of racial isolation in schools.  None of it was true. Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools.  In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes. And the levels of racial segregation and isolation in charter schools were often scandalous.”

Acknowledging Bill Gates’ good intentions, Herbert then tells the story of a number of school “reformers” who have been in it for greed—including Ron Packard the CEO of K12 on-line learning, a company whose founding was underwritten by Michael Milken, the junk-bond king.  And there are others.  “It was easy to lose sight of the best interests of children as corporations throughout the country did all they could to maximize profits from public education. Consider for example, the Rupert Murdoch-Joel Klein connection.”  And there is Jeb Bush, who with former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, “started an organization called Digital Learning Now!, which took on the task of persuading state legislators to make it easier for companies to get public funding for virtual schools and for the installation of virtual classrooms in brick-and-mortal schools.”  We are also reminded about Cathie Black, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hapless schools chancellor, a socialite who served for 91 days until it became clear that running a school district with 1.1 million children might be complicated. “Black had had no previous experiences with the public schools.  She hadn’t attended them… She hadn’t taught in them.  She hadn’t sent her children to them.  In one of her first public appearances after the appointment, she said, ‘What I ask for is your patience as I get up to speed.'”

Herbert concludes: “The amount of money in play is breathtaking.  And the fiascos it has wrought put a spotlight on America’s class divide and the damage that members of the elite, with their money and their power and their often misguided but unshakable belief in their talents and their virtue, are inflicting on the less financially fortunate.  Those who are genuinely interested in improving the quality of education for all American youngsters are faced with two fundamental questions: First, how long can school systems continue to pursue market-based reforms that have failed year after demoralizing year to improve the education of the nation’s most disadvantaged children?  And second, why should a small group of America’s richest individuals, families, and foundations be allowed to exercise such overwhelming—and often toxic—influence over the ways in which public school students are taught?”

NBC’s 2013 Education Nation: Look at Who Will Be Featured and Who Is Missing

It is, of course, impossible to foresee exactly how a TV news program will go, but one worries when the sponsors of the supposed “news” about public education include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the for-profit University of Phoenix.

NBC, which will present its fourth annual Education Nation Summit early in October, has published a disclaimer:  “While all of our sponsor organizations are actively engaged in the education issues in various ways, we choose our programming with the general public in mind – hoping to foster thought-provoking conversations with a wide range of participants.”  Despite these words, viewers should remember to think about the impact of the Gates Foundation on the development of the Common Core Standards, the enormous push for evaluation of school teachers by students’ test scores, and the Foundation’s partnership with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and its District- Charter Collaboration Compact that encourages privatization through the development of new charter schools in big city school districts.

NBC has published a list of confirmed panelists, presenters and interviewees, and some trends seem to emerge.  There is a smattering of public school professionals and supporters: a number of school superintendents including Dr. Joshua Starr of the highly respected Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools; David Kirp, the Berkeley professor who recently published Improbable Scholars, the story of the extraordinary revitalization of the Union City, New Jersey Public Schools; Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, who has led an innovative program to engage African American college students in the hard sciences as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers.

But the mass of speakers are associated in one way or another with what has become known as “the corporate school reform model.”  Here are New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (known for closing public schools and expanding school choice, charter schools, and co-location of public and charter schools) and his current Chancellor Dennis Walcott, along with Bloomberg’s former Chancellor, Joel Klein, who is now leading Rupert Murdoch’s school technology and electronic tablet division, Amplify.  Indiana’s former governor Mitch Daniels and current governor Mike Pence will both appear; they led Indiana to develop a voucher program.  At the same time Glenda Ritz, the public school teacher who got herself elected as the leader of Indiana’s education department on a pro-public education platform is conspicuously absent.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Melody Barnes, the former domestic policy chief who had everything to do with developing Race to the Top and other programs to turn the Title I formula into a competition, will both be speaking.  Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose Foundation for Excellence in Education is pushing hard for privatization, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, supporter of privatization and founder of a large and radical voucher program, are included along with Paul Pastorek, who helped lead the charterization of New Orleans and who is prominent in the far-right Chiefs for Change. Then there is Jonah Edelman, director of Stand for Children, a national astro-turf organization that has made its name opposing teachers unions.

Jeff Bryant, who edits the weekly newsletter for the Education Opportunity Network, affiliated with the Campaign for America’s Future, directs his skepticism this week toward one particular confirmed speaker, however: Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman of Goldman-Sachs.  Bryant writes:  “While many of Education Nation‘s guest panelists have troubling track records on education—particularly Joel Klein—none of them rises to the level of the direct harm that Blankfein has meted out to the nation’s youngest citizens… In presiding over a culture of corruption that helped fuel the nation’s slide into the Great Recession, Blankfein has had a special role….”

Bryant reminds us that Blankfein has also been a cheerleader for sequestration, the federal deficit reduction program that operates to reduce federal budget allocations by a flat percentage without regard for the importance or merits of the programs being cut back.  Sequestration, Bryant notes, has particularly hurt programs for vulnerable populations—students whose Indian Reservation schools depend on federal impact aid, Head Start programs, the Title I formula, and allocations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Writes Bryant: “As a collaborator in the Wall St.-created campaign called Fix the Debt, Blankfein lectured Americans on ‘lowering their expectations’ and accepting ‘shared sacrifice’ of the across-the-board cuts.”

If you watch Education Nation, you might want to remind yourself about who is missing from the roster of confirmed speakers: any of the over three million public school teachers who lead our nation’s classrooms; Carol Burris, the articulate, prize-winning school principal from New York; elected members of the local school boards that oversee the nation’s roughly 15,000 public school districts; any of the very competent staff at New York’s Children’s Aid Society who could talk about the full-service, wrap-around community schools they help develop; well-known scholars at our nation’s universities who are conducting research about improving the public schools including Kevin Welner and Bill Mathis at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado; Gary Orfield or other researchers at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA; or any of the academics who have recently published respected policy books that support public school improvement  including Diane Ravitch, and Mike Rose.

If you are watching NBC’s Education Nation in early October, please do think carefully about what you are hearing and what is missing from the conversation.

Should Private Foundations Set the Direction for Public Schools and Higher Education?

For most of us philanthropy connotes public uplift—Carnegie Libraries — grants to support settlement houses — scientific research.  Today, however, when huge foundations have become primary players in the public education policy debate, there is growing concern that the foundations are accountable to their own boards but not to the public.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch, the education historian and school “reform” critic, declares: “it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations.  There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people;  when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.  These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies.  They are not subject to public oversight or review as a public agency should be…  The foundations demand that public  schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.” (200-201)

Ravitch dubbed the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations the “Billionaire Boys.”   Like a growing group of their critics, she worries that powerful foundations are increasingly granting proactively to pursue their own explicit agendas rather than responding to the proposals they receive.

Two recent, thoughtful articles raise similar questions.  Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, decries The Billionaires’ War Against Public Education.  Dreier traces the investment of funders—The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, far-right investor Philip Anschutz, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch—in the creation, promotion, and distribution of  films (Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down) that promote privatization and attack public school teachers and teachers unions.

Drier contrasts the work of the Billionaire Boys to the production of a different kind of film, created (without philanthropic support and with a far more modest budget) by teams of college and high school students and professional film makers, each of which followed one person through a school day in Pasadena, California, “where two-thirds of the 18,000 students come from low-income families, where many parents are jobless, where many students live in homes where Spanish is the first (and in some cases only ) language, and in a state where per-student funding ranks 47th in the country.”   Dreier describes the film, Go Public: A Day in the life of an American School District as a sort of collage of footage of the schools, edited without narrative commentary.  I urge you to read his moving description of the film and check out the website.

A second article, a special report recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, explores The Gates Effect.  Gates Foundation grants are supporting a major policy shift at the college level—an agenda of “competency-based” higher education that emphasizes a shift to on-line courses; teachers as on-line coaches, not “deliverers of learning;” and measurement of students’  competencies on assigned tasks rather than required hours in class. The goal is “delivering a college degree priced at no more than $5,000 a year.”  Writers for The Chronicle worry that,  “Gates hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon, in ways that are not always obvious.  To keep its reform goals on the national agenda, Gates has also supported news-media organizations that cover higher education… The effect is an echo chamber of like-minded ideas arising from research commissioned by Gates and advocated by staff members who move between the government and the foundation world.”