The state-operated Newark public school system faces a deficit of from $50 million to $100 million this year. It will need to lay off scores, if not hundreds, of teachers. Its state-appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, is once again seeking state approval of a plan to ignore seniority in the dismissal of tenured teachers. Meanwhile, Anderson’s primary reform plan—“renew” or “turnaround” schools–has failed by its own terms, yet she is pushing for its expansion. Anderson’s tenure, by all rational and traditional measures, has been a failure.
Or has it?
It would be considered a failure if the point of it were to improve the performance of neighborhood public schools. She certainly has failed to do that.
But that hasn’t been the point of Anderson’s control of Newark’s schools, has it? No, the point of what she does—with the backing of Gov. Chris Christie and Education Commissioner David Hespe—is to ensure the failure of traditional public schools.
Paranoia? No. Conspiracy theories? No.
Take a look at this and ask yourself if it sounds at all familiar.
“As chartering increases its market share in a city, the district will come under growing financial pressure. The district, despite educating fewer and fewer students, will require a large administrative staff to process payroll and benefits, administer federal programs, and oversee special education. With a lop-sided adult-to-student ratio, the district’s per pupil costs will skyrocket.
“At some point along the district’s path from monopoly provider to financially unsustainable marginal player, the city’s investors and stakeholders—taxpayers, foundations, business leaders, elected officials, and editorial boards—are likely to demand fundamental change.
“That is, eventually the financial crisis will become a political crisis.”
This scenario was written a few years ago, just as Anderson was taking control of the Newark schools in a devil’s bargain among Christie, former Mayor—and, now, thanks to Christie, senator– Cory Booker, and state education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. Booker has said he expected the city to go through a few years of hardship and crisis but emerge at the other end as the charter capital of New Jersey.
The scenario was written by Andrew Smarick, then New Jersey’s deputy state education commissioner.
His plan—which was to become Christie and Cerf and Anderson’s plan—was to bankrupt the public schools by promoting charter expansion. Charter expansion sucks both students and funds from the public schools. It sucks out funds because the public money follows the students. And because, with fewer and fewer students, per student costs rise, buildings empty, and faculty members become redundant.
Someone recently sent me Smarick’s plan. It has been published before, both by himself in an article for a conservative think tank and by Seton Hall professor Christopher Tienkin in the book he wrote with Donald Orlich of Washington State University, “The School Reform Landscape: Fraud, Myth, and Lies.”
In their book, they call Smarick’s memorandum “the smoking gun” and they are right. The problem is either few people are aware of the smoking gun or refuse to believe the evidence of their own eyes.
What’s going on in Newark—and, perhaps, more so in Camden—is the deliberate destruction of public education in order to create a crisis that might be solved only by a complete privatization of the district, not unlike what happened in New Orleans.
Anderson herself has admitted that the expansion of charter schools has led to the fiscal crisis in Newark schools. What she hasn’t admitted is that the plan was deliberate. Parents, she argued, were “voting with their feet” by choosing charters over neighborhood schools.
That was nonsense, of course. Anderson has promoted charter education, helped it along through a variety of ways—most dramatically the “One Newark” plan that expanded charter schools by adding “branch” campuses without the necessity of state approval and by sending students to charters when their parents didn’t want them to go.
At the same time, she has weakened the power of employee unions and ignored the traditional centers of power in Newark and Camden—the civic, civil rights, and religious organizations and leaders.
Worst of all, she has contributed to the humiliation of the local leadership elite by her deceptive approaches. Leaders like Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and state Sen. Ronald Rice D-Essex), the chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Public Schools, have been using rational but now outmoded arguments in an effort to persuade the real powers, Christie, Hespe, and their legislative allies, that Cami Anderson has been a failure.
To Baraka and Rice and most other rational leaders, Anderson has been a failure. But, in the world of Smarick and the Broad Academy from which most of these ideologues have come, the rational definition of failure is hopelessly outmoded.
The failure of the public schools, as Smarick pointed out, will lead to financial and political crises that will, eventually lead to a turnover of public education in cities like Newark and Camden to private entrepreneurs working under state contracts. That is success for him, for Anderson, for Christie–and for allies like George Norcross in Camden who is building his own empire of power based on public education and health care.
Failure is success.
Orwellian? Sure. But not unheard of. Broad Academy graduates frequently argue for “disruption” because reform will not revolutionize the schools in the way they want them to be changed. Their parasitic allies—like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)—think of destroying the power of school employee unions as “bursting the dam” that holds back education reform.
Will opponents of the kamikaze attack on public education be able to stop it? First, they have to admit it is happening. Some comfort should be drawn from the words of John Abeigon, the chief organizer for the Newark Teachers Union, who said he believed only “chaos will defeat chaos.”
Abeigon made the comment in response to the latest round of failure-by-reform steps taken by Anderson, the gutting of nine more schools, including East Side and Weequahic.
He will be condemned, but Abeigon is right. Traditional arguments are useless. Reason as defined by most of us is useless. These are the people, after all, who are allied with those in politics—like Chris Christie– who would repeal the Enlightenment. They don’t want to reform the schools, they want to destroy the schools and replace them with a business model.
So, what should be done? Writing letters to the President didn’t work–it was silly, given the President’s support for Anderson through his education chief, Arne Duncan. Hoping Anderson would have a nervous breakdown didn’t work–and, yes, people thought that might really happen. Pointing out she is a failure didn’t work. Holding legislative hearings didn’t work. Demanding her dismissal didn’t work. C’mon guys, Anderson is doing precisely what Chrisie and Hespe expect of her—why should they fire her? They did exactly what well pleased bosses do—they gave her tenure and lots of new money. Well, personal money, not money for the schools.
Frankly, I think the system has to be shut down. Those trying to save the public schools will have to create a national embarrassment for Christie just as he announces his presidential campaign and points to his great school reforms in Newark and Camden. It has to be shut down by parents, students, and school employees.
I know it’s easy for me to say that. My mortgage is paid. My kids have gone through college. I live on a pension and Social Security. I won’t be losing a paycheck.
I may be ‘way out of line because I don’t even live in the city. But, ask me how Anderson can be stopped and my answer is–not by doing nothing.
Those who have to make difficult decisions in coming weeks will need to recognize that things will not get better simply by allowing Anderson to continue. She will replace veteran teachers with Teach for America scabs. She will use the NJEA-endorsed tenure bill to fire the teachers she’s tried to fire already but was stopped only by some courageous arbitrators. She will close more public schools and shred the union contract with “renew” and “turnaround” changes. She will exploit the openings she was too easily granted in the NTU contract to further weaken public employee protections.
In short, she will win. Smarick will win.
The courts won’t stop her. The civil rights complaints filed with the US Department of Education won’t stop her. Letters and legislative hearings won’t stop her.
The only way she can lose is to make her a very public liability to Chris Christie—right now.
Maybe there is a way to do that without shutting the system down.
I hope so.
But I doubt it.