By Becca Fields
Every day has been a struggle for those believing in public education–genuinely public education–in their fight against forces set on dismantling our schools and selling them for auction on the corporate market. But this week in New Jersey is an exceptional Fight Week. Across the state, especially in urban districts, meetings and protests will define the issues and, maybe, help determine the future of our public education system.
Tonight in Camden, the state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard is scheduled to present his strategic plan for the district. Rouhanifard, the former “talent officer” for the Newark schools, was appointed to take over Camden schools six months ago by Gov. Chris Christie. There should be some concern that the state took over before there was a plan, and that the state plan is being presented to, not discussed with, the people of Camden. And suspicion, because the superintendent solicited more bids for the Urban Hope Schools favored by political boss George Norcross before presenting this plan to the stakeholders of Camden. But state control lasts, by law, for a minimum of three years, so this is the best chance to date to get a seat at the table. (Of course, in Newark, it has lasted for nearly 20 years).
Also tonight, but in Trenton, the new head of the New Jersey School Development Authority (SDA) and former chief counsel to Gov. Christie, Mr. Charles McKenna, will present his plans for the new Trenton Central High School. For decades this school in the state’s capital has been neglected, a true embarrassment to our state. But, in the past three years, as pressure mounted and this disgrace drew national press coverage, Christie refused even to visit the school and did nothing to alleviate the suffering of children forced to attend. Tonight, we will find out if Mr. McKenna has concrete and expedited plans to provide students a school that is safe, modern and healthy. Three years of hollow, unkept promises made by the SDA means we must be vigilant and not assume a shovel will be in the ground any time soon.
Threats to public education are not limited to our urban areas, Tonight there will be a school board meeting in Highland Park, a small Central Jersey community where residents learned their newly hired Superintendent, Mr. Timothy Capone, had recently left a NJDOE Regional Achievement Center responsible for oversight, with threat of closures, of priority or focus schools. Soon after this true believer took over in Highland Park, he added high paid administrators and RIFed nine district employees, including the president of the local educators association–in the midst of contract negotiations. A board meeting shortly after those RIFs drew more than 200 people and lasted well into night with public outcry and concerns (as have other meetings since then). Highland Park is the beachhead for school “reform” in the suburbs.
Tuesday, residents of two school districts under state control will demand that the state live up to its obligation to build up, no sell off, our public schools in urban centers. In Camden, there will be a march–“Education Is Not For Sale”–from the Camden High School to the advisory board meeting, sending the message that Camden wants to see their public schools improved, not closed down or replaced by privatized Urban Hope Schools.
That same night, members of the Newark community are planning protests to coincide with the advisory board meeting there. Anger has been stoked by Cami Anderson’s top-down dismantling of the public school system in her “One Newark” plan. She also has drawn criticism for suspending five school principals, apparently for exercising their First Amendment rights, along with a PTO parent trying to keep fliers up on the door at his children’s school. While the board has no authority to stop or change Ms. Anderson’s plans, the meeting will provide a forum where the community will come together, express a mounting collective outrage, and show unity against a failed state takeover administration that finally has decided to sell off the district rather than return it to local control.
These meetings highlight what is happening all across the state in different forms and fashions. Schools in North Jersey are considering banding together to file a complaint with the New Jersey Council of Local Mandates to object to the mounting–and unfunded by the state–costs of a new standardized testing regime piloted this year (PARCC tests). The people of Jersey City are fighting a recent decision by the school board, whose new members were heavily financed by outsiders, to curtail public participation, viewed by many as an attempt to silence dissent.
These are not the only fights going on this week across the state, but they exemplify the intense battles we are engaged in to defend public education. This is not time for the faint of heart. We must be all in, all together, or public education as we know and value it will fall apart.
Becca Fields is the pseudonym of a public school advocate in New Jersey.