Ras Baraka, high school principal and son of poet Amiri Barak, won the Newark mayor’s race yesterday, on a campaign that heavily emphasized the influence of outside reformers who have rushed to impose massive change on Newark’s school system. According to Bob Braun, 50 year veteran of the Star Ledger, Wall Street interests rushed in the waning days of the campaign with 3 million dollars to try to get Shavar Jeffries over the top. It will remain to be seen if the new mayor has the ability to do anything to slow down or stop Trenton appointed school chief Cami Anderson and her controversial “One Newark” plan, but Mr. Baraka’s victory is instructive.
School reformers will undoubtedly decry this as a set back for “the children” as they often do when people question the endless emphasis on standards, high stakes testing, firing teachers, closing schools and turning them over to charter operators, but we have known for many years now the detrimental effects of poverty in childhood and not one of the corporate reformers’ ideas has any answer for that. Pointing out that placing unrealistic demands on schools, essentially setting them up to fail, and then turning them over to charter operators who have become an investment vehicle for Wall Street is unfair and anti-democratic is not making excuses — it is demanding that “reformers” be upfront about how they have been monetizing public education.
The Newark race is also instructive because it represents a voter backlash against the general pace of change being placed upon public education from outside the democratic process. Newark was placed under an astonishingly rapid pace for wholesale reform by former Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie who had gained massive funding pledges from financial interests. Booker himself is quoted in the New Yorker article as urgently pushing “reform” ahead regardless of what anyone in the path of it might think. Now I doubt that anyone who is being honest would question that Newark needs change —
administrative overhead is astonishingly high just as an example. (I would like to thank Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters who sent me a fact check from Bruce Baker of Rutgers University. I sourced the observation of administration costs in Newark from The New Yorker article, but Professor Baker points out that Newark’s administration ranks 24th out of 103 K-12 districts in New Jersey school systems with over 3500 students. Data from the state DOE can be found here.)
But Booker and Christie’s race to push reform from the top down absent any real effort to build a grassroots coalition for change is illustrative of the entire approach to “reform” that we have seen since No Child Left Behind raised the stakes on public education in the Bush administration. Everything — from Common Core, to assessments, to value-added teacher evaluation, to tenure reform, to charter school expansion, to creating vast data clouds for vendors to mine — has come at a break neck clip without meaningful involvement of parents and teachers.
Public education is a part of our national “Commons” — our collective cultural and economic resources. What has been going on in the past 15 years has been a cynical exploitation reminiscent of Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” where individuals pursuing rational self interest deplete or even destroy that resource. It is certain that many involved in the Newark story sincerely believed they were working to improve Newark’s schools, but it is equally certain that many others were urging that process forward without democratic input because they saw many millions to be made regardless of whether or not the schools became great.
Yesterday, the voters of Newark said “enough” to that. It is up to the new mayor to bring change for all of Newark’s children and to do so with the input of parents and teachers.