Today, it begins. It’s the assault on public education in the state’s largest city known as “One Newark.” Instead of fully funding the state’s school aid formula, instead of ending racial isolation in the schools, instead of returning the schools to representatives of the people of Newark—all of which are required by law—the Christie Administration is beginning a wholesale closing of neighborhood public schools and transfer of valuable real estate to private entities like charters.
How do you stop it? You don’t. Not without organization. And it’s clear much of what the Christie machine is doing to Newark is aimed at weakening the one organization with a history of standing up to those who ran the city’s schools—the Newark Teachers Union (NTU).
I’ve had my differences with the NTU and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Read my book “Teachers and Power” (Simon and Schuster, 1972). Carole Graves, the NTU’s former president, once published an article in the union newspaper in which she called me “psychotic.” Last year, I opposed the deal Randi Weingarten cut with Christie-appointee Cami Anderson that created the insulting “merit” pay system that, unsurprisingly, found the vast majority of Newark teachers unworthy of merit awards.
But here’s the problem: As education historian Diane Ravitch has repeatedly said, teacher unions are now the only organized groups that have even half a chance to push back the effort to turn public education into a Wall Street profit center through the bonds sold by charter school management companies and other privatization efforts. The voice and impact of neighborhood and political groups can only be magnified if they join with the unions now to stop the attack on public education.
Don’t forget–Christie has powerful political allies in this fight, including Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo–who backed Christie against Democrat Barbara Buono–and newly elected US Sen. Cory Booker a voucher proponent for whom state superintendent Cami Anderson worked.
The attack begins today with the full-page ad in The Star-Ledger inviting the parents of Newark to abandon their neighborhood schools and sign up for admission to other public schools and participating charters. The “universal” application process is the engine that will drive the continued depopulation of conventional public schools and the expansion of charter schools.
One Newark and other policies of the Christie-appointed state administration also seem to be aimed at weakening the NTU in unprecedented ways. One member of the union’s executive board, Nancy Gianni, a first grade teacher at Alexander Street School, points out that the impact of school closings and other changes will be especially severe on union leaders.
“I don’t know whether it is a coincidence or not,’’ says Gianni, a first grade teacher. “But it does appear the NPS (administration) is trying to intimidate the union.
She points out that 25 of the 27 executive board members working in the schools are located in buildings facing overhaul in the One Newark plan. Many of these school employees may lose their jobs, along with hundreds of others if the plan—which calls for “right-sizing” staffing—goes through.
Gianni says she believes many teachers already are frightened or in denial about the impact of the plan on their jobs—and the attack on the union leadership will make it difficult to organize against it.
“Everyone is afraid,” she says.
John Abeigon, the NTU’s director of organization, says he believes the Christie regime is “attacking public education generally, not just the union,” but he believes the disproportionate impact on executive board members is “coincidental—collateral damage.’’
Abeigon says he believes there is “no question” the Christie administration is trying to “bankrupt” the union and points out that it is forcing routine grievance procedures to court and that has cost the NTU extraordinary legal fees. At the same time, he says, he believes the administration’s plans encourage the hiring of Teacher for American (TFA) graduates, many of whom do not pay full union dues.
Matthew Frankel, a spokesman for the administration, insists it has “great respect for the NTU executive board” but accuses the union leadership of refusing to talk. He blames the impasse on “incorrect assumptions” held by the union leaders about the administration’s policies. Frankel’s statement did not respond to the charges of attempting to bankrupt the union.
His full statement was:
“We have great respect for the NTU Executive Board and would greatly value the opportunity to work with them directly. Unfortunately, since the last election, each time we have made a request to speak to the Executive Board it has been denied. $30 million in Race to the Top funding was taken away from Newark schools because of incorrect assumptions made by the Union Leadership and now we are seeing incorrect assumptions with our plan to create 100 excellent schools. We hope the NTU Leadership will provide their Executive Board the opportunity to meet with us directly and regularly, so we can begin working together to serve Newark.”
Gianni agrees that efforts to block the closing of neighborhood schools can only be stopped if the union and community and political groups—all of whom oppose the Anderson plan—work together.
“ But can we get together in time”? she asks.
Parent groups—especially in the south and central wards—have been trying to organize opposition to the closing of neighborhood schools. Some have circulated petitions seeking legislative intervention to block the plan. One mayoral candidate, Ras Baraka, has announced his opposition to the plan and called on the Ander son administration to work with parents and school employees to modify the plan. Efforts by community organizing groups to get the organizations together have had only limited success.
The so-called universal application plan closes Feb. 14 when applications from parents must be in.