If a history of Newark public education is written, the date of Oct. 19, 2015, will go down as the day the dream died. It will be written up as the day the forces of selfishness and greed, as personified by the clown we in New Jersey call governor, defeated the last best hope of residents of the state’s largest city for a rebirth of a liberating public school system.
From now on, it’s everyone for himself or herself. If there aren’t enough lifeboats for the passengers on the sinking ship known as Newark’s public schools, then, well, the strong and the connected and the opportunistic will survive and those burdened with disabilities and language problems will simply drown. That is, after all, the message of privately-operated, if publicly-funded, charter schools. Hooray for me, the hell with everyone else. Or, as the Brits would say, “I’ve got mine, Jack, screw you all.”
Of all the events of that day (and other events will be detailed in Part 2), the most dramatic were the acts of omission and commission of the city’s mayor, a man who called himself a radical and yet acts very much in the tradition of Newark mayors who know where the power is and are drawn to it, perhaps out of political necessity. Ras Baraka, as I am sure even Ras Baraka knows, would not be mayor of Newark today if he did not position himself as the uncompromising champion of traditional public education over the forces of privatization, including the big-money people who believe privately-run charter schools should be the 21st Century missionaries to the city of Newark–the big money people who tried to quash Baraka’s campaign and elect Shavar Jeffries.
I still remember Baraka’s angry yet somehow reassuring words months ago to small knots of men and women who needed someone to say what they believed. Those small knots grew and grew into an irresistible force powered by hope and pride and determination. The people of Newark responded to what was, after all, a message of hope. This is the man who could face down the gangs and here he was facing down the biggest, most dangerous, best-funded gang of all—the state administration of Chris Christie.
People couldn’t help but cheer him on when, after he was elected, he promised to send a detachment of police to escort Cami Anderson, the state-appointed superintendent, from her office. So many saw him as the people’s mayor when he allowed student demonstrators to tie up the city and when he acted swiftly to correct injustices, like the pain inflicted on student leader Kristin Towkaniuk by a city cop.
“You are all the mayor,” he told his supporters after he was elected and many believed it.
Well, if the residents of the city were all elected mayor in the spring of 2014, then some of them now are more powerful mayors than others. When the planning board voted in compliance with Baraka’s wishes to allow Uncommon Schools (NorthStar) to build a new facility on Court and Washington Streets, Baraka let everyone know that some co-mayors are more important than others.
I have asked for an explanation of his action that day and I have been told he will not issue a statement to me. That’s fine. I will offer one for him: The truth is that, if the planning board voted against the proposal, the well-funded lawyers for NorthStar would be in court and, eventually, they would probably win. But a man who calls himself a radical would, at the very least, say something like, “Okay, bring it on—but we’re not approving this until someone assures us it won’t hurt the traditional public school students of the city.”
But he didn’t say that. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t appear at the meeting. He didn’t have an aide read a statement. He garnered the praise of those organized by NorthStar because it was clear he told the board what to do.
Just hours earlier, the mayor put out a statement saying expansion of the charter schools now was “highly irresponsible” and would “hurt the fragile infrastructure” of the public schools. He knows what the planning board did was wrong for public school children and yet it happened anyway.
Then a distraction. Someone posted a picture of him posing with TEAM Academy students holding a sign suggesting the mayor was one of presumably many “Newarkers for MORE KIPP schools NOW!” It isn’t easy to say but it was clear someone—and I doubt it was a child—set up the mayor to look silly. Ozman Shabazz and Eric Dawson gave the picture life on Facebook.
In response, the mayor took to YouTube to publish a Vlog that attacked, not his friends at KIPP who set him up, but unnamed critics for even mentioning and posting the picture. Well, not everyone was unnamed. One person was named. I was.
I was the only person mentioned in his rant against critics. So all this talk about using children was clearly aimed at me. No, Mayor Baraka, I didn’t use children. I didn’t pose in front of a sign I didn’t read. I have no power in Newark to help or harm public schools. I am a retired pensioner who just writes because that is what I do. That’s all I do. And I do it for myself—no one pays me–and I do it in support of my belief that only a vibrant, well-funded public school system—freed from the killing cancer of discriminatory charters—will help restore New Jersey’s cities to hope and prominence and grace.
In the entire five-minute video log not once did he specifically mention the planning board vote—an event far more important than his political gaffe in standing in front of a sign he didn’t read. Yes, he’s right—his unwitting pose for KIPP cameras did not contradict his earlier statement that charter expansion was “highly irresponsible.” But the planning board vote, which he did not mention, certainly did.
Let’s put to rest one statement that has become a cliché—the idea that Baraka cannot criticize charters because he is “the mayor of all the people.” In his video, he wove that in with the idea that his critics are hurting children.
Yes, he is mayor of all the residents—including public school children and their parents. He is the mayor of Isabel Troche and her family that has to send four children—three of whom are special needs– to four different schools because of the “One Newark” plan he promised to end but didn’t. And the “One Newark” plan is an integrated part of the effort to expand charter schools in Newark. Baraka is the mayor of countless parents who take buses in the dark to bring their children to schools far from their homes—and that happens because public schools have been closed and charters won’t take these kids.
“One Newark” didn’t end under your watch, Mayor Baraka. But NorthStar—run by people from outside Newark– got its new school.
I sit here and type, Mr. Mayor. I have no power. Accuse me of hurting children if you want—but you know as well as everyone else does that you were elected to end these abuses of the rich and the real outsiders like Donald Katz and you have not done that. Intead, Katz—a trustee of NorthStar and a resident of Montclair—has a seat at the table determining the future of Newark’s schools.
I cannot support publicly-funded charter schools as long as they discriminate and discrimination is in their very DNA–and public funds must not be used to discriminate. I do not blame parents for believing they must choose what they believe is best for their children. They must put their kids in the lifeboat even if that means other children certainly will drown–because public funds given to charters are taken away from neighborhood public school students.
But I do blame those in power for creating the hellish, racist, soul-killing conditions that render public schools the stepchildren of education—stepchildren to privately-operated charters. I do blame those in power who create racial isolation in New Jersey schools worse than that in Mississippi. I do blame those in power who have cheated Newark schools out of billions in state aid over the years. I do blame those who chase after the money that charters draw from Wall Street and the hedge-fund managers who think they are contributing to society by giving away backpacks.
Selfishness is not in the DNA of Newark’s communities but some are learning it from the charter masters and their political supporters. The sense of community seen in the streets of Newark the night the mayor was elected is giving way to the neo-Darwinism of the charter masters—get what you want for your child and just don’t worry about anyone else.
Newark was on the verge of throwing off Christie and his racist oppressors. The children were in the streets and they could have paralyzed the state.
But that’s all gone now. Now Newark has a committee, the Newark Educational Success Board, dominated by people who support and fund and run charter schools. Now Newark has a vague promise of local control—local control of a bleak educational landscape where the neediest get the least. Newark has all that, Mayor Baraka, because you made a deal with a man no one should trust, Chris Christie—a deal that put in power probably the single most visible champion of charter schools, Christopher Cerf, another Montclair resident.
Until Oct. 19, 2015, it wasn’t really clear what would happen. But, on Oct. 19, 2015, the future became obvious. It was the day the dream died.