CHARTERS: NJ press–finally–smells rot, but proposes reforms that continue racist policy

Deseret Segura, 16, comforts her grandmother, Deseret Richardson, 83. The older woman was weeping because her granddaughter would be transferred to a school far from home they shared because of the so-called “One Newark” enrollment plan. It was designed by Christie administration to ensure charter school enrollment growth. It continues today despite promises by Mayor Ras Baraka to end it. ( 2014 Photo by Bob Braun)

A recent series of articles in The Record of North Jersey described how the “flawed experiment” of charter schools cost the state millions in public dollars. While it is gratifying that—finally— a major mainstream news outlet in New Jersey noticed the corruption inherent in publicly-funded but privately-operated  charter schools,  this eureka moment  not only comes late—about five years after it was originally exposed in these pages—but it also skips over the human casualties caused by the corrupt and racist spread of charter schools in New Jersey’s cities.

And, in the end, the series teaches the absolutely wrong lesson and promotes the absolutely wrong solution—that, if only the Legislature can change the laws governing the construction of privatized schools, everything will be fine. The series, far from calling for an end to the theft of public school funds to finance charter expansion, promotes so-called “reforms” that would make it easier for charters to expand—and further degrade  public schools.  

“Just introduce legislation,” The series quotes former Assembly Speaker Joseph Doria (D-Hudson) , a long-time champion of charter schools, someone frequently mentioned in the northjersey.com piece. The articles also frequently cite the views of other charter proponents who blame the corruption on faulty legislation, poorly drafted regulations–on anything but greed and contempt for urban children.

No. No. No. No. That’s wrong.

Wrong because, the basic, irrefutable truth about charter schools is this:

Privately-operated charters take away money (construction and operating funds) from public schools—especially in New Jersey’s largest cities where resources are scarce. They are replacing public schools, using public money to do it–public money that should be used to repair public schools, not replace them.

Charters are replacing regular public schools and that was never the intent.

Following the series’ suggestions would mean more charter schools, less money for public schools, and a continuation–even enhancement–of the racism that propels public education policy in New Jersey’s cities.

 The truth about privately operated charters and how they are built and operated with public funds  has been glaringly obvious for years—but few in the commercial press wanted to look at it, including The Record (northjersey.com).

                 An article posted by this site nearly six years ago—“Will the Last Student to Leave Newark’s Public Schools Please Turn Out the Lights?”—described the plans of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to replace Newark’s public schools with charters subsidized by the governor’s decision to pump tens of millions of dollars into the charter school sector using the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), a sinkhole for patronage and cronyism.

                The plan was put together by Christie, the wandering pro-charter consultant Christopher Cerf, and then Newark Mayor Cory Booker– a deal most memorably detailed by Dale Russakof in The New Yorker. Even before I left The Star-Ledger in 2013, I worked with my brilliant young colleagues Jessica Calefati and David Giambusso on Cerf’s feeding at the trough of public money for privatized charter schools under Gov. Chris Christie.  Cerf was head of “Global Education Advisers” and he produced a plan that would make the city the charter capital of New Jersey following these steps:

  1. Close old Newark public schools without building new ones, creating a demand for spaces in charter schools.
  2. Expand charter schools through construction funds authorized by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), a bond issuing agency–infested with Christie cronies and charter proponents– originally designed to promote private businesses.
  3. Create a centralized enrollment system that would send children to charter schools outside their neighborhoods.
  4. Strip the state-operated Newark public schools of operational resources so that parents sought alternatives—what Christie liked to call “choices.”

Cerf, a nationally known promoter of privatized charters, would ensure the plan was implemented because Christie named him the state education commissioner. Eventually, Cerf became the state-appointed superintendent in Newark.

                Cerf’s Global Education Advisers developed the plan in 2011 and 2012. Before we left The Star-Ledger.  And before The Star-Ledger became so hopelessly enamored of charter schools that it could not separate fact from opinion, could not possibly admit the truth about the potential for corruption. See my discussion of journalistic ethics and news coverage of charter schools. Indeed, the chief editorial writer for the state’s largest newspaper repeatedly dismissed as “conspiracy theorists”  those who worried about the impact of charter schools on conventional public schools.

Doing the pink hula hoop at a Newark school board meeting in 2014 as part of the protest against using public money to finance the purchase of public school buildings by private companies–like “PinkHulaHoop1LLC”–that were profit-making. The mainstream press, including The Star-Ledger and The Record of Hackensack (northjersey.com), boycotted the school board meetings and refused to write about the scandal. (Photo by Bob Braun)

                But back to the Christie/Cerf/Booker  plan to privatize Newark schools through the channeling of tens of millions of dollars to the politically favored charters through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority—the core of The Record’s expose.  On Jan. 7, 2014, this site published the first of two articles on the “Pink Hula Hoop” scandal.

                The”Pink Hula Hoop”  articles describe how charter schools use both non-profi t and profit-making corporations to building schools and lease them to charters.

                The recent northjersey.com (Record) series now concentrates on what this site revealed five years ago.  The outlet—like The Star-Ledger—ignored the issue back then. But Newark residents could not ignore it. Because Cerf and Christie—and their appointee as superintendent in Newark, Cami Anderson—used the funding scheme to expand the growth of  charters, close public schools, and impose a cruel enrollment plan that would disperse children throughout the city to feed the charters’ need for students.

                Yes it is too bad that charter schools—with the connivance of Christie, Booker, Cerf, former state-appointed Newark superintendent Anderson and former state education commissioner David Hespe, among others—were able to channel tens of millions of public dollars to privately-owned charter school operations.

                But that wasn’t the worst of it.

                Children suffered—and the mainstream media didn’t give a damn. Anyone who expressed sympathy for Newark’s children was denounced as a conspiracy theorist.

                On February 24, 2014, Bob Braun’s Ledger posted an article—“Hawthorne Avenue Suffers as Newark Plays Let’s Make a Deal”– about efforts to close the Hawthorne Avenue School in order to turn it over to the TEAM Academy Charter schools. It explained how Christie worked with the charters to use public money to steal public schools for school privatizers.  The article contained this summary of the scam:

“One of the three contenders for control of the future of Hawthorne Avenue is the TEAM Academy Charter Schools, a politically well-connected charter franchise whose leader, Timothy Carden of Montclair, is a former business partner of outgoing  state education commissioner Christopher Cerf. Carden is a principal in a web of non-profit and profit-making corporations that have been able to obtain at least $40 million from a $125 million charter school fund established by Gov. Chris Christie through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority .The EDA is run by Christie’s close ally and friend, Michele Brown, once herself the recipient of a $46,000 pesonal mortgage from Christie; she doesn’t need the money anymore—the EDA pays her $225,000 a year. Carden was a member of the EDA board. He is connected in Christieland.”

We did not ignore what was happening. Neither did blogs written by  Jersey Jazzman (Mark Weber) and Rutgers professor Bruce Baker. We warned about the corruption and cronyism surrounding the “flawed charter experiment.”

 It was the mainstream press doing the ignoring. A northjersey.com representative a few days ago tweeted that the charter scandal was “ignored” before its series. That’s worse than an inaccuracy–it’s hubris.

Just ask state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) who called a press conference to expose and criticize the use of public money for private purposes—the very scams northjersey.com now denounces.

The Record’s site could have easily learned about the use of NJEDA money five years ago if it had bothered to show up at Rice’s 2014 press conference. It didn’t; neither did The Star-Ledger.

My piece about the press conference said the financing represented by the Pink Hula Hoop “was worse than a crime—it was racism.”

Too strong a term? No, not at all. The public schools serving Newark’s children were stripped of resources to allow the Christie/Booker plan to flourish.

Christie came through with the money for the charter schools, both through the NJEDA and through policies that, while robbing the conventional public schools of operating funds, ensured charter schools would be “held harmless” by cuts in state aid. Artificially creating a financial crisis in the Newark schools that would lead to a political crisis that would benefit charters, according to one top Christie aide.

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) at a March 3, 2014 press conference in which he demanded a criminal investigation into the “pink hula hoop” scandal. He is joined by Acting Newark Mayor Luis Quintana (left) and Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex). The press conference was boycotted by the mainstream media, including The Star-Ledger and The Record of Hackensack. (photo by Bob Braun)

Anderson came through with the cruel “One Newark” enrollment plan that artificially boosted charter school enrollment while weakening public schools, many of which were left with scarcer resources and a needier student body. “One Newark” was not only an attack on the public schools but also on the sense of Newark as a community. Parents and children wept as the state masters in Newark forced them to leave nearby schools. The death of a child may have been linked to the chaos created by One Newark.

But how could One Newark be legal? Charter schools are by law supposed to admit by random lottery—but here was the state-operated Newark school assigning public school students to charters. Oh, but David Hespe, who replaced Cerf as state education commissioner, had that problem covered—proving corruption doesn’t have to be just a matter of money. With the stroke of his pen, Hespe allowed the state-operated system to ignore the lottery requirement for charter schools if the privatized schools signed up to be part of the enrollment system. Read the ugly, smelly details in “How Hespe and Anderson Scammed Newark’s Children to Help Charter School Friends.”

Little wonder then that Hespe, after leaving state employment, would be hired by Cerf’s Newark school regime to be a consultant. He had been so good to charter schools—he even expanded by thousands the number of charter seats in the city–he probably thought he deserved to be rewarded by Cerf and company. He did good work for them.

Did the mainstream press ignore that con? Yes. But this site didn’t.

The northjersey.com series focuses on the NJEDA financing of charter school construction and the use of cut away profit-making corporations to do it. That’s a process a process that continues to this day. Read this site’s expose of the state’s $10 million financing of the defunct Lady Liberty Academy School—a school that received NJEDA help despite its poor academic record..

But the most troubling concern about Lady Liberty is this—the Murphy Administration has continued to block public release of information about the scandal. The power of those behind privately-run charter schools endures, even under a governor who promises change.

In the end, the story of charter schools in New Jersey isn’t really about education. It isn’t about a few real estate developers making a buck on charter schools. It’s about power. And race. It’s about ignoring the needs of poor black and brown children. Tweaking the laws so the financing system doesn’t quite smell so bad won’t change that—it will just make it smell better in the suburbs so that legislators can go back to ignoring what is really happening.

 But the children in places like Newark will still continue to suffer. As I wrote five years ago when state Sen. Ronald Rice—at a press conference boycotted by both The Record (northjersey.com) and The Star-Ledger–called the “pink hula hoop” scandal a “crime”:


            “I don’t know whether  Rice can prove (the) sale of Newark’s 18th Avenue School to the leaders of the TEAM Academy Charter Schools involved criminal activity. I think it was worse than a crime. I think it was racism. I think it demonstrated contempt for poor, powerless people.  But no one ever gets indicted for racism and contempt for the poor.”

2 comments

  1. Lorraine Wehrle

    The Strip mining of education nation wide is real and must be fought head on by the union leadership and members. NOW

  2. Pingback: Charter School Sector Swindles the Public, Burns Tax Dollars, and Cheats Children—Part 1 | janresseger

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