Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has called for the temporary transfer of power over the city’s schools to his office until New Jersey’s largest school system can be returned to its democratically elected school board. His demand, contained in a New York Times’ article appearing today, follows by a few days his appeal to President Barack Obama to intervene in the affairs of the state-operated district.
“The first step in a transition to local control of Newark’s schools is a short-term, transfer of authority to the mayor,’’ Baraka wrote in a piece entitled “A New Start for Newark Schools.”
“I would quickly appoint a new superintendent. Once basic functions were restored to the district, we would move as soon as possible to return control to an elected school board with full powers.’’
In his letter to Obama, the mayor was not so specific about solutions, requesting only what he called “presidential intervention in the disruptive and illegal educational reforms being implemented in the Newark Public School (NPS) district under state control and state Superintendent Cami Anderson’s One Newark Plan.”
Both his op-ed piece and his letter to Obama describe in detail the failure of state control for the last 20 years. Both make a strong argument that, as he wrote in the Times, Gov. Christie himself “and his appointees now own the failure of the state’s policies.’’
But, of course, there are problems standing in the way of Baraka’s best intentions—he has no power to make any of this happen. And the people who do have the power have no desire to make any of it happen.
The Legislature could, of course, return local control to the Newark school board in legislation that could be fast-tracked and enacted within weeks. But state Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), a supporter of local control, cannot even get Anderson to appear before his Joint Committee on Public Schools to explain herself. He won’t be given subpoena power to investigate the state’s failure. How will he get a bill passed returning local control?
Think of the players here. Senate President Steve Sweeney, despite his gubernatorial ambitions, remains the lap dog of both Christie and Christie’s unelected co-governor, George Norcross, a fervent champion of the private hijacking of public education. State Sen. Theresa Ruiz (D-Essex), whose strings are pulled by Joseph DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive who tried to defeat Baraka at the polls, talks but does nothing to help restore local control to Newark. Indeed, the entire Democratic Party in New Jersey—controlled by the likes of Norcross and DiVincenzo, is hostile to the legitimate aspirations of the people of Newark. To them, and to former Mayor Cory Booker, now firmly ensconced in the US Senate thanks to his friend, Chris Christie, who manipulated his election in 2013.
So, legislation won’t work.
In his letter and article, Baraka speaks of all the complaints filed with civil rights officials within the US Department of Education. It will take years for the complaints to wend their way through the federal bureaucracy—a bureaucracy that now is controlled by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a fan of what is happening in Newark. Duncan and his pick-up basketball teammate, Barack Obama, are supporters of charter schools and the kinds of “reforms” championed by Anderson. Christie often says he and Obama agree on educational policy—and, for one of the rare times it’s true, Christie is not lying.
So, the feds won’t intervene.
Many of us were excited when lawyer Robert Pickett filed for an injunction to stop “One Newark,” Christie’s plan to bust city neighborhoods by closing community schools. The administrative law judge refused the injunction, guaranteeing that it will take years for his complaint—filed on behalf of an organization called PULSE—to be heard. I am not convinced the judiciary is any longer independent enough to slap Christie in the face. The governor, after all, suffered no ill effects by firing the only African-American on the state Supreme Court, an affront clearly forgiven by the state NAACP that offered him the chance to spew venomous lies at the organization’s last convention.
So, don’t count on the courts.
And, of course, it is ridiculous to assume Christie will have a change of heart when he has no heart—or a change of mind when his mind, when it is detected at all, is as closed as a steel trap.
So, what’s the point of what Baraka is doing?
I think there is a point. Baraka can change the reality on the ground, but he will have to want to do that. He will very much want to do that because his options carry serious risks.
Ras Baraka, the son of Amiri Baraka, one of the nation’s most forceful urban orators, will have to take a lesson from his father’s playbook and become the champion of action to overthrow the oppressive weight of Christie’s control of the schools. Baraka will have to take to the streets—indeed, he is the only person in Newark now who can.
Against serious odds and Booker-backed money, Baraka became mayor, primarily because he took the side of the people against Christie, Anderson, DiVincenzo, Ruiz, and all the rest. That courage and determination may soon be forgotten if he relegates his own past to history.
The politician who campaigned on his willingness to face down the gangs must now show the same determination to face down the most powerful group of gangsters in the state—the Christie-led political coalition determined to make Newark into a gentrified plantation serviced by privatized schools, with the poorest and neediest children warehoused in the few remaining public schools drained of resources.
He can do that by taking to the streets. Leading rallies and protests. Backing the students who have proven they are just waiting for a signal to move.
Baraka can do that in other ways as well. He can use his police powers to shut down unsafe and overcrowded schools. To take other extraordinary measures to protect the safety of children who are endangered by Anderson’s transportation plan.
Frankly, I think he should order the schools shut down for a thorough review until Christie comes to the table. Sure, he would face push-back—but maybe, just maybe, if he can confront the state, a meaningful case can get in front of a court that will be reminded how the children of Newark have been denied their rights to a thorough and efficient education—and how the schools of Newark are so badly segregated as to constitute legalized apartheid in New Jersey.
The “fierce urgency of now,” said Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr—and President Obama.
Confront Christie now, Mayor Baraka—and let’s see just how well his fight with you serves his presidential campaign.