Newark Public Schools began the school year under the “One Newark” program imposed upon the city by Trenton appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson. The plan, which is the fruition of the partnership between Governor Chris Christie and former Mayor and current U.S. Senator Cory Booker, essentially speeds up the process by which neighborhood schools are labeled failures and turned over to charter school management and, in theory, opens up the entire city to a school choice plan potentially sending students all across the city in search of schools. Community concern, parent, student and teacher, has been brushed aside, and the plan has been put into operation this school year.
Bob Braun, retired education reporter for the New Jersey Star Ledger has extensively covered the plan’s roll out on his blog, Bob Braun’s Ledger, and it is safe to say that he characterizes it more as a roll OVER of the entire community. Schools were slated to close even when succeeding by every reasonable metric. Anderson stopped attending monthly public meetings where she was hearing the public’s anger and confusion. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed concern that Anderson’s plans are being rushed to implementation too quickly. During the summer months, it was clear that Anderson had no operable plans for the transportation logistics problems caused by potentially busing students from the same families across the city to entirely different schools. The lack of planning or even of care to plan was further evident this summer, when parents, taking off much needed work hours to participate in a school assignment process, were left waiting for hours in sweltering heat only to be told they would have to return another day. Mind you, this wasn’t to enroll in an assigned school — it was just to get an assignment at all. Mr. Braun reported one of just many heart-breaking stories entirely born of the cruelty being imposed upon Newark:
All the parents had stories to tell about the cruelty inflicted by the Anderson/Christie regime on the often poor and predominantly black and Hispanic residents of Newark. Typical was the story told by Marisol Mendez who came to the “One Newark” registration day to find placements for her 14-year-old son, Carlos Perez, and 9-year-old daughter, Emily Perez. The family lives in the North Ward and the children attended Abington Avenue but, when they applied under Anderson’s “One Newark” plan, Carlos, a special education student, they were assigned to West Side High School and Emily was sent to a South Ward school.
“The placements were inappropriate for both of the children,” says Mendez. “My daughter is not going to take NJ Transit across town and my son needs a self-contained, special education class. He has had one all of his school career.”
Mendez tried to get answers from both the NPS administration and from charter schools. But, she says, two charter school operators–Newark Prep and K-12–told her they couldn’t take special education students. When she tried to speak to bureaucrats downtown, she received this shocking answer:
“They told me I should home-school my children.”
Anderson was upbeat on opening day, despite numerous reports of buses wandering the streets trying to find the students they were supposed to pick up. But this week, the Newark Students Union tried to prove a point: that even in a politically disenfranchised community like Newark, people love their schools and will use whatever voice they can to make themselves heard. On September 9th and 10th, students took part in direct action to protest what has been imposed upon them from outside political and economic alliances that see their entire school system as a worthy “experiment” at “creative destruction”. With threats of citywide boycotts no longer supported by adult-led institutions such as the teachers’ union and the city clergy, these teens decided they had to be on the vanguard of demanding that Newark be heard: as reported by WABC News in New York City. The student activists protested a second day by blockading the street near Anderson’s office as reported by WNBC the following day. That protest culminated when police moved in to unchain the protesters, injuring the group’s leader, Kristin Towkaniuk. Time will tell what will become in Newark, but despite their setbacks, it was genuinely inspiring to see students standing up when few adults are willing to do so.
And we all might have to get used to it. I hope that I am wrong, but I have a terrible feeling that what is happening in Newark will shortly become the norm in American urban education. Those schools have been treated to over 31 years of a relentless narrative of failure that has set them up for this kind of externally imposed disruption, and large portions of their populations are alienated constituencies in the body politic who certainly cannot muster the kind of money that drives policy today.
What worries me is that the growing backlash against the common standards, associated testing and use of testing to label students, teachers and schools as “failures” ripe for reorganization and take over is one with teeth because it has been pushed into our politically empowered communities, ones under no threat of state take over and loss of local control. Peter Greene, a teacher and blogger, wrote about how at least one enthusiastic advocate of current reform trends, Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, appears to be grasping this problem. The gist is that Mr. Petrilli is now concerned that he and his fellow reform enthusiasts have mistakenly pushed their entire reform package into communities that have always thought highly of their schools, get the outcomes that they wish from those schools, have no easily identified need for drastic changes — plus they vote. Some of them are even affiliated with powerful corporations who can provide the kind of monetary largesse that gets the attention of policy makers.
I could have told him this years ago if he had asked. While a super majority of Americans think our schools are doing a mediocre job at best, a similar super majority of parents approve of the schools their children attend, and the Race To The Top package of reforms have taken the failure narrative from urban parents long used to it and pushed it out to the suburbs, whose parents are getting pissed at it. Petrilli is even willing to admit that most high poverty schools are not failing so much as they are “no better and no worse” than average suburban schools. However, he then pivots that such schools cannot “settle” for average and arrives at his conclusion that “no excuses” charter schools are the “best” suited for the job of propelling high poverty student populations to match students in affluent communities.
And this is why we can expect Newark to be replicated across the country if we don’t speak up even from the comfortable position of middle class school patrons. I think Petrilli is correct when he diagnoses the reasons for growing push back against Common Core, testing and school failure. Reformers have pushed so hard so quickly that they have challenged the politically empowered constituencies that policy setters need in order to stay in office. They certainly cannot charterize school districts where well-off families paid top dollar for homes in a neighborhood specifically because of the neighborhood schools.
But the efforts to turn over more public schools to charter management organizations will not give up easily. If you have any doubt about that, recall that Wall Street donations pushed over 3 million dollars into the campaign of Shavar Jeffries for Newark mayor because his opponent, now-Mayor Ras Baraka opposed One Newark and its plans to turn over many more Newark schools to charters. This is in a city where the mayor and school board have no real power over the schools. There are well-financed and influential operations that want One Newark to become a model for urban education.
If that happens, we will have missed an opportunity. If suburban parents manage to push back the disruption of current reforms from their communities, only to stand back and allow it to be imposed, full force, on communities without political power, it will be yet one more anti-democratic burden layered upon the backs of these communities. It will be yet another case where we have abandoned children living in poverty as someone else’s problem, favoring the “easy” answers promised by education “reform” instead of the hard work of re-imagining a society without institutional racism and an economy where genuine opportunity flows upward.
We cannot afford to keep ignoring that.