Just days before the New Jersey state school board voted to end state control of the Newark schools in 2017, local administrators appointed by former Republican Gov. Chris Christie pushed through a contract awarding nearly $200,000 to a consulting firm with ties to state officials who ran the district. It was just one of a number of commitments the system’s former state masters imposed on the struggling, financially strapped district.
And, while the Newark school system dutifully paid The New Teacher Project Inc. (TNTP) all the money required by the contract’s terms, the district—according to a later state audit—didn’t use documents, advice, and other materials provided by the consulting firm.
The New Teacher Project is a spinoff of Teach for America (TFA), an organization that recruits teachers without traditional training, mostly for short stays in poor districts. TNTP was established in 1997 by TFA alumna Michelle Rhee who later attracted national attention for her anti-union and pro-charter school policies and testing controversies in Washington, DC, where she served as superintendent. TNTP now plays down its connections with Rhee and TFA—and probably for good reason.
Cami Anderson, a former political operative for then Newark Mayor (now US Sen.) Cory Booker and the first of Christie’s choices to run the Newark district as state-appointed superintendent, was a TFA executive director. In her first year as Newark’s state-appointed superintendent, she paid TNTP $1.8 million for consulting services.
Now she runs an organization called Third Way Solutions that is part of a “collaboration” with TNTP, an effort funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the New Schools Venture Fund.
Christopher Cerf, the last state-appointed Newark superintendent, is a former NJ education commissioner who worked as a consultant to the Newark schools before becoming state education commissioner. As Christie’s education commissioner, he appointed Anderson to the top Newark job. After Anderson resigned amid street demonstrations against her policies, Christie then named Cerf to the Newark post. Cerf, a national proponent of charter schools, recently was cited by TNTP for his endorsement of the organization’s work .
Anderson and Cerf are just good friends of TNTP.
Just how much TNTP has been paid with funds from the Newark schools isn’t yet known. Despite Newark’s new status as an autonomous school system—maybe because of it—the district’s officials are reluctant to share public information. Repeated requests for public information are—repeatedly—ignored. Requests under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) are routinely refused based on technicalities.
But, in the last few weeks, efforts by the leaders of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) to understand an off-hand comment in a state audit led to some fascinating—if not as yet completely understandable–insights into the last efforts by the state administration to keep well-placed private consultants happy as the state was cut off from directly controlling the district.
The off-hand comment came at the end of a brief but highly critical description by state auditors of hiring practices at the Newark school system when it was under state control. The audit, conducted by the state education department’s Newark Internal Audit Unit, reported that the state-operated Newark system did “not have adequate procedures for the recruitment and hiring of staff.”
The state audit also charges the school district—again, while under state control—“did not maintain adequate documentation supporting the hiring process,” lacked guidelines for committees used to hire new employees, and failed to “document reference checks for new hires.”
Then the auditors noted:
“While reviewing the district’s hiring practices, the auditors were provided documentation that was created by TNTP, Inc., a company that was hired to provide a staff process and protocol. These documents contained processes and protocols that can be adapted and used by Human Resources to develop recruitment and hiring policies and procedures.”
Could be used—but were not.
The NTU filed a request under the OPRA law and this is what it revealed: From January, 2014, to June of 2018, the state-operated Newark school administration paid TNTP $511,394, including $187,000 for the same new staffing procedures cited in the state audit. The procedures Newark didn’t use. The balance of the money paid to TNTP went to, among other things, paying for surveys of student attitudes about their teachers.
So many questions remain. Like: Why didn’t the Newark school district use the materials it paid TNTP nearly $200,000 to produce? What materials did TNTP produce? Who made the decision not to use them?
Oddly enough, the auditors themselves didn’t think of asking those questions. And a spokesman for the state education department, Michael Yaple, said the state would not require any further action because the comment about TNTP was “an observation not a finding.”
Officials in Newark school administration declined comment beyond noting it expected the district to be in compliance with the audit’s demands. Demands that do not include finding out why the $200,000 spent on TNTP apparently did not produce anything the school district didn’t—or didn’t want to—find useful.
But there’s more to come. Tantalizing bits about the timing of the contract—and the timing of the close 5-4 Newark school board vote on the contract.
And exactly who–and what–is TNTP? Who runs it?
And just whose signature is that on the TNTP contract anyway?