The most prominent critics of the state administration of the Newark public schools are traveling to Washington, DC, to make their case to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. They will include Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) and other legislators, union leaders, community activists, and advocates and experts associated with the Education Law Center (ELC) and the Alliance for Newark Public Schools.
The meeting, scheduled for March 4, will come too late to have any impact on the expected one-year extension of the contract of Cami Anderson, the state-appointed schools superintendent. Indeed, Baraka, in a press conference Thursday, said he had been informed Anderson already had been offered the extension. In any event, her tenure in Newark is a state matter and she still apparently pleases Gov. Chris Christie, if few others.
“We have made our case to the Christie administration and clearly they are not going to do anything,” said Rice who, with U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr (D-10th) set up the meeting with Duncan, the former Chicago schools superintendent who has been President Barack Obama’s education chief since the beginning of his administration.
Rice also said he has not had the full support of fellow Democratic legislators who have resisted his efforts to grant subpoena and other investigative powers to the committee he co-chairs, the Joint Committee on Public Schools.
Anderson repeatedly refused to show up before Rice’s committee until he introduced legislation granting the panel investigatory powers. In early January, at a four-hour hearing, the Newark schools chief avoided answering some of the most pointed questions aimed at her, especially about a land deal in which she sold public school property to charter school interests headed by former associates of both herself and of former state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.
In response to her evasiveness, Rice accused Anderson of “taking the Fifth,” a reference to claims of the right against self-incrimination often invoked by those suspected of criminal activity.
A second day of hearings before Rice’s committee has been scheduled for March 10.
Rice, Baraka, and many other civic, political, and union leaders have been critical of Anderson’s hallmark reorganization, the so-called “One Newark” plan that has been aimed at eliminating neighborhood schools and expanding the role of privately-operated charter schools in Newark.
It’s unlikely, however, that Duncan, himself a champion of privatized education, will be moved by the confusion and suffering caused by Anderson’s redirection of children around the city to attend schools far from their homes. He famously–and insensitively– once said that the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina was “good” for the schools in New Orleans because it led to the eventual transformation of the system into a charter school operation.
But what might concern Duncan are issues repeatedly brought up by organizations like the Education Law Center, a public interest law firm that has accused the state administration of failing to abide by federal education law and regulatons that require efforts to improve public schools before they can be closed and turned over to privatizers. State Education Commissioner David Hespe has blown off such complaints, contending Newark can “waive” requirements.
Also of likely interest to federal officials are the many complaints brought by parents and other advocates about the failure of the state administration to abide by laws governing the treatment of special education, disadvantaged and English-language learning students. Advocates for these children have filed numerous complaints with the federal education agency and, if nothing else, the delegation from Newark will make the case that the complaints should be resolved more quickly.
Anderson’s critics also have contended that the pains of the “One Newark” plan falls most heavily on children and employees of color and therefore violates federal civil rights statutes–as does the failure of the state to allow local control of the public schools.
Rice concedes Duncan could turn him, Baraka and others away without helping the people of the city.
“But, if that happens, we are going to continue pushing in every way we can until the children of the city of Newark received what they are due,” he said.
The state took over the Newark school system in 1995 after more than a year of investigations into corruption and failure. Despite some gains in the beginning, a refusal of successive state administrations–both Democratic and Republican–to fully fund the schools failed to improve student performance.
With the election of Christie in 2009, the state took a radical turn toward privatization as its chosen mode of what its proponents call “reform.” With the assistance of then Mayor–now US Sen.–Cory Booker, Christie embarked on a major campaign of transforming Newark into what Booker called the “charter capital of New Jersey.”
The changes have come with a heavy stench of corruption. For example, the first effgorts at a reorganization favoring charters came from a study conducted by a consulting firm headed by Christopher Cerf, who was later to become the state education commissioner under Christie. Cerf left the state to become an executive with an educational services company that has contracts with Newark.
Cerf chose Anderson who was both an associate of Cerf’s from New York and a political operative for Booker during his first campaign. Anderson has turned her tenure in Newark into a national campaign to boost privatization.
Anderson, however, has proven completely devoid of skills related to dealing with the public. More than a year, she stormed out of public school board meeting and has never returned.
Just within the last few days, students have conducted a sit-in at her offices–and she has refused to meet with them. She also tried to starve the children out by refusing to allow them access to food–despite promises to the contrary–and sent uniformed police officers to their parents’ homes with letters demanding they “retrieve” their children.
At the very moment Wednesday when her assistants refused to allow food to the students, Anderson was pictured in a nearby bar having wine–during school hours.
“She was way out of line,” said Rice who, with Baraka, appeared with the demonstrators to show their solidarity with them.
Rice said he is hopeful about the meeting with Duncan but will continue his efforts to expose Anderson even if he is rebuffed. “We’re in this for the long haul,” he said.