The reappointment of a failing Cami Anderson to a fifth year as Gov. Chris Christie’s superintendent of Newark’s public schools caused anger, of course. Sadness and disappointment, too. But these are not new. What is now taking over the emotions of the city’s residents and leaders is a pervasive and disorienting sense of bafflement. What Christie and his subordinates and allies have imposed on Newark seems like a logical impossibility, a contradiction: A numbing sense of surprise. It’s as if the city’s residents were forced non-stop to watch an absurd play where impossible nonsense regularly happens but is treated as normal. In the rabbit-hole that is Cami Anderson’s and Chris Christie’s Newark, failure is success, illegal is legal, wrong is right. And the more failure and illegality and wrongheadedness the city’s people witness, the less they can do about it–and the more Anderson is praised and rewarded. It is madness as public policy.
Imagine, if you will, any other community in the state–or in the nation–where a public school superintendent can boycott her elected school board’s meetings for more than a year and yet suffer no professional consequences. And is praised and rewarded.
Imagine, too, a superintendent who, after four years of controversial stewardship aimed at improving measurable performance among students, must admit scores are lower—and yet she suffers no embarrassment. And is praised and rewarded.
Imagine a public school superintendent who, no fewer than three times over the course of a year, defies the demand of the state legislature’s committee that, by law, is charged with monitoring her performance. And, again, no consequences. Except, she is praised and rewarded.
Imagine a public official who secretly sells public property to a profit-making company whose principals have personal ties to her. No consequence. Just praise and reward.
Imagine a public official who awards contracts to former associates—without oversight. No consequence. No criticism. Just praise and reward.
Imagine a public official who insists on trying to fire tenured employees using a legal theory that fails time after time—a dozen times—and yet continues to spend tens of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars in legal fees in the futile cause. And, again, no consequences. Except, praise and reward.
Imagine a superintendent who hires top assistants who have banned from working in their previous communities because of misbehavior. No consequence. Praise. Reward.
The list goes on and on. Special education students have their IEPs rewritten. A child dies after disappearing in the confusion attendant to a chaotic school opening. Is there an uproar? Is there an investigation? No. Cheating takes place on a state test, apparently in a botched effort to help an athlete graduate on time. Anything happen? No. On school time, she stops for a drink while students occupy her office. Result? Nothing. She is praised and rewarded.
Indeed, this blog is in large measure a catalog of her missteps and mistakes, her failures and misjudgments. And it all has the same result: No result.
The world many professionals in education have come to expect has been turned upside down. In no place but Newark could a chief school officer behave so badly, fail so miserably, act so indifferently–and be retained and rewarded with new contracts and bonuses.
A list of Cami Anderson’s failures is only half the story of what has happened to the Newark schools in the last four years. The other half is equally baffling, equally disorienting and the other half is this:
Not only has no one put an end to the list of mistakes and misjudgments, not only has she suffered no consequences as a result of her failures—but this is more important: Cami Anderson has drawn the praise and protection of people who should know better. Not just people who should know better—but people on whom others rely to protect her victims from her predations.
This from Christie: “I have always backed Cami Anderson.” His words after introducing her in the middle of the 2014 State of the State speech.
This from state Education Commissioner David Hespe: “Cami has worked tirelessly to implement positive education reforms that have benefited Newark students and parents. We look forward to continuing to support the progress that has taken place in the district.”
This just today from the editorial board of The Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper: “There is plenty to like about the reforms Superintendent Cami Anderson has brought to Newark.”
Each has a responsibility to prevent harm; each has, instead, denied such harm exists without even trying to determine whether it does exist, and, in fact, each has contributed to the harm inflicted on the living, flesh-and-blood people of the city by their indifference to suffering. By their indifference to a child like Brenda Keith. By their indifference to the children wandering around the city in buses. By their indifference to parents struggling with work schedules because they must spend hours getting their children to school.
And therein lies the bafflement and the disorientation: It is as if Newark’s residents were terrorized by armed robbers who lined the streets and publicly and openly committed their crimes. Who menaced and stole and yet operated with the collusion of law enforcement officers who stood by and encouraged the criminals. Encouraged them and praised them and tried to make the victims believe the perpetrators were heroes. Published newspaper articles declaring their crimes to be “bold and sensitive” reforms. Madness as public policy.
No, this is not an exaggerated analogy. Christie and Cami and their enablers, the liars who call her failures successes, have stolen much from the people of Newark and their children. They have stolen more than money.
They have stolen a community’s need to protect its own children. They have stolen pride. They have stolen dignity. They have stolen a sense of efficacy and potency, their ability to impact their own lives. They have stolen the franchise–the very power to vote.
The elected leaders of the people—their mayor, their school board members, their freeholders, their legislators—cry out and identify the crimes and demand justice, but they are ignored. They are told the criminals are heroes. That Cami Anderson has been a champion for their children.
Mayor Ras Baraka–how powerful did you feel when Christie dismissed you as a “hostile” black man and tells you he is the “decider” who can ignore you and the wishes of those who put you in office? How much of that contempt and disrespect can you take? How do you feel knowing–as you admitted in answer to my question at Tuesday’s press conference–that you really don’t have much power?
State Sen. Ronald Rice–how powerful do you feel when Anderson flips you the bird and refuses to show up at your hearings? When she refuses to answer your questions? When she has so much influence with legislative leaders of your own party that you cannot even win subpoena power?
Members of the elected school board–how do you feel knowing she despises you so much she will not appear in public with you? That she treats you as irrelevancies?
Unions and your leaders–what have Christie and Cami done to you? What have they stolen from you? Your power? Your willingness to fight? The courage of your members?
Religious leaders–where did you hide after your first letter? Where now is your concern for the catastrophe you warned might come?
Often, it seems the only people willing to stand up to Christie and Cami, the only people who still can respond with dignity to the insults of this regime, the only people who are not disoriented by the magic tricks of the chief clown and his assistant, are a few dozen students belonging to the Newark Students Union. They, perhaps, are too young to be hypnotized by the Trenton tricksters.
See–Christie and Cami have not just stolen control of the schools from Newark and its elected leaders. They have stolen what, in every other place, would be the expected order of things. That democratically elected leaders set policy. That professionals listen and follow their guidance. That laws are obeyed, mistakes are corrected, wrongs righted, people, especially elected leaders, are treated with decency and respect.
Christie and Cami have spit on Newark’s elected leaders and their legitimate concerns. And, forgive me, but I believe it is because you and the people you represent are black and brown and poor. And, because you are black and brown and poor, you are–to them, to Cami and Christie and Hespe–irrelevancies. You appear powerless, unable to do anything. Irrelevant, certainly to the governor and the school superintendent and the commissioner.
Writing letters hasn’t worked. Issuing press releases hasn’t worked. Going to court hasn’t worked. Calling press conferences hasn’t worked. The indifference of Christie and Cami to common expectations of civilized behavior and professional conduct have turned the world upside down. What once worked in Newark, what works elsewhere for other people in other places, doesn’t work in Newark any longer.
Sen. Rice said something at the press conference that should make everyone pause and think. He said the climate now was like it was in 1967.
That year, the world was turned upside down, too.