The Newark Central Planning Board, with the apparent approval of Mayor Ras Baraka, voted 8-1 to allow the charter school chain, Uncommon Schools, to build a new charter school literally within sight of City Hall. One member of the board told this site that the panel was told before the meeting that Baraka, who had been viewed as a champion of traditional public schools, “let the board members know he was fine with the approval.”
Within hours of the vote, social media began circulating a photograph of Baraka posing with children who were apparently students of KIPP Schools, another privately-operated charter school chain, in front of a sign that reads: “Newarkers for MORE KIPP schools NOW!”
KIPP Schools runs Newark’s TEAM Academy charter schools that are seeking to open five more schools in the coming years. The dual expansion of Uncommon Schools–which runs the NorthStar charter schools–and KIPP would mean a devastating reduction in state aid that would otherwise go to traditional public schools.
The planning board vote and the publication of the picture came just hours after Baraka released a statement in which he said the planned vast expansion of charter schools in Newark would be “irresponsible.”
He told NJAdvanced Media that “To move forward in this manner without any consideration of the impact on students is highly irresponsible and shows no consideration for the majority of children in the Newark Public School system.”
Baraka has tried to walk a fine line between opposition to charter schools and support for traditional public schools. He has consistently said he doesn’t oppose charter schools but insisted that the Newark schools should concentrate on improving the traditional schools.
Last month, he went on a tour–paid for by supporters of charter schools–in which he handed out backpacks and school supplies to the city’s children.
On Facebook and other social media, Baraka’s supporters defended his posing for the picture behind the pro-charter sign, saying the mayor must have been unaware of what the sign said and he was “set up” by pro-charter advocates. The picture was reportedly taken at the Breast Cancer walk in Newark Sunday.
Allowing himself to be the target of a cheap political trick doesn’t inspire much confidence, however. Some opponents of the deal he made with Gov. Chris Christie to get rid of former schools superintendent Cami Anderson say that also was an unwitting set up–getting the mayor to deflate the growing anti-state movement in Newark just at a time when Christie needed a quiet New Jersey while he was out of state running for president.
The deal brought to Newark as superintendent Anderson’s former boss and Christie’s former education commissioner, Christopher Cerf, a nationally-recognized champion of charter schools and a former trustee of a KIPP school in Newark.
Whatever the circumstances of the picture-taking, the planning board’s support for Uncommon Schools deals a real blow to the pro-public school movement in Newark.
“Either the planning board was disloyal to their mayor’s wishes or the mayor wanted them to vote for it,” said John Abeigon, the president of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU).
(More to come)