New Report Decries Theft of Democracy in State School Takeovers

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is pushing back against the rush by state legislatures to take over the poorest schools in America’s big cities—in many cases to seize entire school districts—and run them without the oversight of an elected local school board.  Examples of such state takeovers abound these days from New Orleans to Little Rock to Philadelphia to Detroit to Newark, and recently, after the Alliance’s report went to press, Youngstown, Ohio. The new report from the Alliance declares, “(T)here is a different attack on minority  enfranchisement not addressed in the Voting Rights Act.  Instead of barriers to the ballot box, local elected governance is being dissolved altogether.”  State takeovers cluster in low-income, black and brown communities, the report explains, while across the United States 95 percent of school districts continue to be run by locally elected school boards.

In Out of Control: The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities Through State Takeovers, the Alliance proclaims: “This fall, tens of thousands of students are returning to schools that have been placed under state authority.  Elected school boards have been dissolved or stripped of their power and voters have been denied the right to local governance of their public schools. These state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of underinvestment in their public schools and consistent attacks on their property, agency and self-determination. In the past decade, these takeovers have not only removed schools from local authorities, they are increasingly being used to facilitate the permanent transfer of the schools from public to private management.” State departments of education, ill-equipped to run schools and school districts, are increasingly bringing in enormous charter management companies to operate the schools now under state takeover.  While school choice is said by its proponents to empower families, parents in these now privately-run, state-held school districts find themselves disenfranchised and without leverage to shape their children’s schooling.

The new report traces the history of under-investment in these districts dominated by racial segregation and rapidly intensifying poverty: “Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Voting Rights Act (both passed in 1965), public schools have never fully served low-income students of color. Our antiquated school funding system that relies on local property taxes to support public schools embeds inequities based on race and class. When the rise of manufacturing in northern cities attracted large numbers of African American families looking for jobs, they were met with housing discrimination and redlining that led to segregated neighborhoods and segregated schools. When manufacturing left these same cities, they were thrown into decline. The loss of jobs, and later, resistance to integration led to massive white flight, further concentrating poverty in urban centers and communities of color. Over the past twenty years, systemic inequality and economic and social apartheid have intensified the challenges facing public schools serving majorities of African American and Latino students. Instead of addressing these challenges with investments in schools, neighborhoods and good jobs, the last two decades have seen the rise of an education philosophy that argues that poverty doesn’t matter. School failure is blamed on families, students, teachers, district administrations and local control itself.”

Rising achievement has not followed for the children in the state “recovery” or “achievement” districts: “These districts and schools have not seen a renaissance in academic achievement, an end to corruption or mismanagement, or financial stability. But they have seen other impacts:

Fragmentation of political power. State control removes the power to govern schools from a locally elected school board with the authority to set programs and funding for public schools. Charterized systems are worse—each school or network of schools has its own (private, non-profit) governance structure, policies and procedures…

Loss of community-based institutions. By closing public schools, removing them from local control or turning them into privately-governed charter schools, the connections between public schools and neighborhoods have been dismantled. In many cities, children no longer have guaranteed access to a school in their neighborhood…

“Increased segregation. State-run districts, by definition comprised of “failing” schools, isolate and stigmatize students and parents. Charter schools have been shown to exacerbate already-high levels of segregation in public schools…

“Financial instability. The creation of parallel school systems in many U.S. cities is undermining the financial health and stability of public schools, and resulting in devastating cut-backs in services, staffing and academic and extra-curricular offerings.”

National organizations that lead the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools are the Alliance for Educational Justice, the American Federation of Teachers, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Gamaliel Network, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and the Service Employees International Union.

This blog has recently covered the theft of democracy due to state state takeovers of schools and school districts here and here.

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“One Newark” Exemplifies the Shock Doctrine: Public Institutions Seized from the Powerless

In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the takeover of the New Orleans schools in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina as a grand experiment perpetrated by policy makers on a city so vulnerable nobody could protect the public assets that should have been rescued.  Klein concludes, “I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, “disaster capitalism.” (The Shock Doctrine, p. 6)

When we think about the Shock Doctrine applied to education, New Orleans—where the schools were charterized and all the teachers fired—is the example that comes to mind, but our test-and-punish system under the No Child Left Behind Act has branded the schools in our poorest cities as “failures” and created a crisis atmosphere that has also made way for the application of the Shock Doctrine.  Back in 2010, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, working with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, seized such an “opportunity” and set up Newark for an experiment in disaster capitalism; he staged his Shock Doctrine live on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg handed Booker $100 million to fix Newark’s schools. In a recent article Washington Post education writer Lyndsey Layton summarizes what happened as the “One Newark” plan was put in place by Christie and his appointed overseer Newark school superintendent, Cami Anderson. Public schools were closed and charter operators brought in.  Union agreements were abrogated. It has been easy to move quickly in Newark, where the schools have been under state control for twenty years and residents have been unable to establish sufficient checks and balances despite the presence of an elected school board that lacks virtually any power. Cami Anderson has not bothered to attend any meetings of Newark’s school board for well over a year now.

Layton describes One Newark: “The plan is the signature initiative crafted by Anderson, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie (R) in 2011 to run Newark Public Schools.  The state seized control of Newark Public Schools in 1995 amid academic and financial failure, but two decades of state control has resulted in little progress.  One Newark, which fully took effect in the current academic year (2014-2015), essentially blew up the old school system.  It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices.  It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools…. With Christie’s blessing—and freed from the need for approval from a local school board—Anderson pushed through a raft of changes, many of which were untested…  As a result, many families saw their children spread among multiple schools or sent across town. The scattering has been problematic for a city divided along gang lines, and where many residents don’t own cars.  The end of neighborhood schools meant that newcomers no longer had a right to attend the school down the street.  The new citywide lottery, relying on a computer algorithm, forced many students to change schools while dividing siblings in some cases between different schools in different parts of the city.  Meanwhile, state test scores have stayed flat or even declined….”

Local elected officials have tried unsuccessfully to protect the right of parents and citizens of Newark to control their public schools.  Senator Ronald Rice, chair of the New Jersey Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, was able only after repeated attempts to require Cami Anderson to appear before his committee to defend her plan, but she refused to discuss matters of substance with his committee.  A civil rights complaint was filed earlier this year with the U.S. Department of Education.   A group of high school students  occupied the offices of Superintendent Cami Anderson for several days in February.  U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., Newark’s representative to Congress, recently petitioned Cami Anderson in a formal letter to respond to the concerns of his constituents: “Your failure to respond and to engage in a meaningful dialogue on behalf of all Newark students is very disappointing to my constituents and me. There is a crisis situation going on in Newark.” And just this week, in an attempt to gain leverage, Newark’s new mayor, Ras Baraka, a high school principal elected on a pro-public school platform in the spring of 2014, was able to get his own “Children’s First Team” of three elected to the local elected board of education. All five of the elected board members support Baraka and oppose Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan.   You can read earlier posts about Newark on this blog here.

Despite the protests, Cami Anderson, has been rewarded not only with Christie’s support but also with a bonus.  She has also announced plans to expand One Newark.  Bob Braun, former education writer for the Newark Star Ledger, recently blogged: “Three related events are merging into a crisis for the public schools and their supporters.  The first is Anderson’s decision to designate nine more schools—including Weequahic and East Side high schools—as ‘turnaround’ schools that will force employees either to give up their jobs or their contract-guaranteed working conditions.  The second is Anderson’s insistence that the state grant her permission to ignore employee seniority rights so she can lay off veteran teachers to meet a budget deficit of up to $100 million that she caused.  The third is the arguably felonious refusal of the state to insist that Anderson abide by the terms of the waiver of the federal No Child Left Behind requirements.”

The Newark Teachers Union just announced a formal protest; teachers will no longer work extra hours before or after school but will picket to bring attention to the problems with One Newark. Naomi Nix  of the Star Ledger interviewed a union leader who reports:  “(T)he teachers will participate in ‘informational picket lines’ during non-school day hours to explain their concerns to the public.”  Braun reports that Mayor Ras Baraka supports the teachers’ action.  Dr. Lauren Wells, Baraka’s chief school officer met with teachers and told them: “Enough is enough.  This is not how you change the schools.  We support you.” Braun adds: “Five members of the Newark school board also showed up to show their support—leading to the possibility that Newark might be the scene of the first teachers’ strike supported by its local school board.  The state has stripped the board of most of its powers, but the members do act as a barometer of anti-state feeling.”

Braun would agree, I think, that Newark’s schools exemplify a Shock Doctrine—the imposition of school choice, public school closures, expansion of charters, and attacks on unionized teachers—on a community whose citizens lack power.  He writes: “The last year has been its own moment of truth about the respect shown to leaders of color—even prominent, elected leaders like Rice and Baraka and members of the school board.  In a state run by Christie and allies like Steve Sweeney and Joseph DiVincenzo and George Norcross, the concerns of black and brown political, religious, and civic leaders simply do not matter.”  Shock Doctrine educational experiments are characterized by their imposition by the powerful on other people’s children.

Chris Christie has been very clear about Newark: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.”