Five years ago, Chris Christie went on the Oprah Winfrey show to crow about his plan to revamp the schools of Newark New Jersey. He was joined by his ally, then-Democratic Mayor of the city, Cory Booker and Facebook billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg who kicked in $100 million for the effort. It was bold. It was unprecedented. It was exactly the sort of thing that could catapult an ambitious man like Christie into the vanguard of contenders in 2016. So why, now that his unofficial campaign is in full swing is he not touting the success of his school privatization at every opportunity? Simple. It’s an abject failure.
Newark’s public schools were failing long before Chris Christie became Governor. There’s nothing new about that. Even the idea of putting the state in charge of things there is not new. The state took over the city’s schools in 1996 and has run them ever since, mostly with no improvement, under the hands of a long line of governors from both parties. But Christie’s plan was different, “Paradigm shifting.” Not content to tweak a few things here and there, to change a few rules and a few faces at the top, Christie’s plan, One Newark, was as ambitious as the man himself.
The architect of the plan is Cami Anderson, Chris Chritie’s Newark Schools Superintendent. As the plan began to take shape, Newark residents have been far from happy with its direction and with Anderson in particular. There have been protests by parents and rallies by the students. When asked about the criticism, Christie was his usual diplomatic self.
The roll-out of the plan has been a mess. Some students didn’t receive a school assignment. Others were assigned a school on the far side of town. For young students, this presents a safety issue in the transportation itself. For older ones, a bigger problem, gangs. Relocating students all across the city means crossing territory controlled by different neighborhood groups, inviting conflicts.
The chief intended result of the shell game being perpetrated on the city is the dissolution of the public school system itself, replacing most of it with private charter schools. Shifting resources to those charter schools means even less is available for the few public schools remaining. Ultimately, those schools fall even farther behind, necessitating their replacement as well.
Yvonne Malone, parent of a 12-year-old student, joined a boycott in September, pulling her son out of classes for four days, saying,
“Because of lack of resources, lack of protection for these children, I was forced to pull him out [of traditional public school], Pull him out of a school that should be right for him, should be made equal for him.”
Part of the issue with the rush to privatize the schools lies in the way things were done. In the reorganization, the traditional schools were turned over to charter operators without fulfilling the statutory requirement of acquiring the permission of a majority of the impacted parents and staff.
All of this chaos was supposed to do two things, improve the schools and become more financially effective. Superintendent Anderson says high schools are seeing a better graduation rate and higher test scores, but K-8 scores show no improvement, with math scores dropping below their 2011 level.
On the financial front, there are questions about where all the money has gone. In the rush to turn over the professional staff, according to Bob Braun’s Ledger, there are over 400 teachers and administrators who have been pulled from their classrooms and offices, but not from the payroll. All told, this represents some $25 million in no-show jobs. There have also been reports that, in the massive shuffle to replace old teachers with new ones, some teachers are put into positions for which they are not qualified.
The people of the city of Newark have seen the wonders of privatization and they are not happy. That discontent was a large part of the impetus that brought Ras Baraka to the mayor’s office. A vocal critic of One Newark. In an Op-Ed in the NY Times, Baraka advocated a return to local control of the district.The express intent of the takeover was to intervene temporarily to improve the quality of our schools, increase the achievement of students and better manage the system’s finances. Since the state was on the receiving end of a 1994 State Supreme Court ruling that the underfunding of public schools in urban districts was unconstitutional, the timing seemed suspicious, to say the least. It felt as if we were being annexed.
Nearly 20 years later, it is clear that the state has failed on all counts. Local control must be returned to Newark’s public schools immediately.
Take Back Newark Schools, a community group of parents teachers and support staff, agrees.• In 2006, the New Jersey legislature laid out benchmarks in five areas whereby the district could gradually return to local control.
• In 2007, Newark earned control of district operations, but hiring and fiscal operations remained under state control.
• In 2011, despite a state review showing the district has met the state’s requirements for getting back full local control, the state education commissioner refused to budge.
• In 2013, despite Newark again reaching the benchmarks, the state again refused to end its intervention and return the district to local control.
Clearly, fixing what’s wrong with the schools of Newark, NJ is a daunting undertaking. But isn’t it one that should be in the hands of the people involved? Especially so when the state has had a 20 year opportunity to do so and failed. This greatest failure on school privatization should be the one that finally sends the issue back where it belongs.
The city of Newark, like so many other cities throughout America, suffers from problems of poverty and violence that make it all but impossible for students to progress at the pace we expect. Any real solution to the problems in our schools must address the greater issues at the same time. But to think these will go away by dismantling a public school system which was built up over decades is ludicrous.