Newark: Baraka’s allies criticize the mayor for supporting charters

Cerf and Baraka announce community schools initiative
Cerf and Baraka announce community schools initiative

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s allies criticize him for supporting charter schools just a week after Gov. Chris Christie threatens to “run him over” for not supporting them. It’s complicated–and the mayor has been wildly inconsistent. He declines a request to respond.

Things are not going well for Ras Baraka. The Alliance for Newark Public Schools, the coalition that virtually made him mayor through their fund-raising and campaigning in 2014, sent him a letter  repudiating his signature “South Ward Community Schools Initiative” and warning him about his growing ties with the expanding charter schools business in the city.

“The Alliance for Newark Public schools and the organizations that comprise our table have grown increasingly concerned with the actions of your office in regard to protecting traditional public schools and moving a comprehensive, locally controlled community schools program,” read the letter signed by Deborah Gregory Smith, the head of the Newark NAACP and current president of the alliance.

“We’re troubled that the charter school industry is implementing a tried and true strategy from their political playbook–one that, on the surface, promotes a so-called ‘unity’ strategy but that, in reality, divides your base of supporters.”

The criticism was sparked by  the selection of two schools as “community schools”–schools that are seeking conversion to charter status. It comes just days after Gov. Chris Christie threatened to “run over” Baraka if he tries to limit charter school growth.

Signing on to the letter were the NAACP, The Newark Teachers Union, the New Jersey Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO; NJ Communities United; Parents Educating Parents; Operating Engineers, Local 68; City Administrators and Supervisors Association; Coalition for Effective Public; the Newark Teachers Association; the Secondary School Parents Council, and the Laundry Distribution & Food Service Workers Local 3.

The organizations are a roster of the groups that stood by Baraka in the spring of 2014 when outside money–much of it from Wall Street-backers of charter schools–flowed into the city in support of Shavar Jeffries, a charter promoter and Baraka’s rival for the mayor’s seat. The groups also provided the people power for Baraka’s ground strategy that turned around what seemed like an easy victory for Jeffries, a Seton Hall Law School faculty member, charter school trustee and  now president of the pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), an anti-union group.

At a time of growing anger and frustration with Cami Anderson, appointed by then state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf to be Newark’s superintendent, leaders of the coalition’s organizations provided him with a credible educational plan based on community schools.

Baraka won. David beat the charter money Goliath with a few smooth stones provided by unions, civil rights groups, and others opposed to expansion of charters.

New best buds: Cerf, Donald Katz (a trustee of a charter chain) and Baraka
New best buds: Cerf, Donald Katz (a trustee of a charter chain) and Baraka

The groups stood by Baraka even when the new mayor began developing relationships with charter groups, accepting their invitation to tour the city in a backpack give-away event–and asking charter representatives to speak at an education summit.

Many even stood by him when, just as the student-driven anti-state demonstrations began to create an embarrassment for  Christie’s presidential campaign,  the mayor cut a deal with  the governor that resulted in Anderson’s dismissal and a vague promise of an eventual return to local control after more than two decades of a state-run school regime.

But things began to fall apart in the fall. Baraka has seemed inconsistent, writing letters complaining about charter school expansion, directing his planning  board to approve expansion of a NorthStar school, then writing a letter conceding charter schools will have to expand, even at the expense of traditional public schools. While he has always said he supports charter school parents and students, Baraka has never been able to reconcile one unfortunate fact about charter school promoters–they want expansion and expansion means reducing funds for traditional public schools and, perhaps, as has happened in New Orleans, a destruction of public education.

He has tried to be on both sides at the same time.

The mayor has denounced critics as “outsiders” and “supremacists” and “paternalists” who  want to divide the city while he sought unit–themes he repeated as recently as this week in his State of the City address.

But the letter from the Alliance for Newark Public Schools undercut that argument. The alliance is not a group of outsiders–it was Baraka’s  base.

The  issue that broke the troubled silence of most of the organizations was community schools–specifically the South Ward initiative. In December,  Baraka and Cerf jointly announced the initiative, saying they would use $10 million left over from the Mark Zuckerberg money to help fund a small number of traditional public schools equipped with wrap-around services to help parents and children. There was supposed to be a competition.

But it didn’t look like  a competition–especially after two schools, Peshine Avenue and Avon Avenue were chosen for the extra money. Cerf had said the schools would be chosen even before the competition began. The two public schools already receive extra money worked out through an extraordinary arrangement between Anderson and Dominique Lee, a former Teach for America colleague of Anderson. The new creation was called BRICK Academy.

But despite their designation as community schools, Lee said he would push to have them designated as charter schools, leading to widespread suspicion that the “community schools initiative” was simply a cover for charter school expansion.

That was too much for the pro-public school group–especially after it was revealed by school board members Wednesday night that Lee told them in a private meeting he would not withdraw his charter application–and didn’t trust the community schools initiative to come up with enough more for Brick.

“We believe it is the best interest of Newark Public Schools and City Hall for Brick to sign a five-year commitment preventing traditional public schools from submitting charter applications during their transition into community schools,” the Alliance said in response.

City Hall did not respond to a request for a reaction to the Alliance statement.

Following is a press statement announcing the letter:

Newark, NJ – Members from the Alliance of Newark Public Schools, a coalition of advocates opposed to charter school expansion in Newark, delivered a letter to Mayor Ras Baraka’s office opposing the South Ward Community Schools Initiative unless there is a five year agreement preventing traditional public schools from submitting charter applications.

The letter to Mayor Baraka states, “The Alliance for Newark Public Schools and the organizations that comprise our table, have grown increasingly concerned with the actions of your office in regards to protecting traditional public schools and moving a comprehensive, locally controlled community schools program. We’re troubled that the Charter school industry is implementing a tried and true strategy from their political playbook – one that on the surface promotes a so-called “unity” strategy, but that in reality divides your base of supporters.” The letter from the Alliance for Newark Public Schools can be found online at http://bit.ly/Alliance2Baraka.

The letter raising questions about Mayor Baraka’s community schools initiative comes in the midst of a lead water crisis in Newark’s public schools and on the heels of an op-ed published by Trina Scordo, executive director of NJ Communities United which stated in part “While the mayor seems to have changed his vision for the future of Newark’s public schools, ours has not. NJ Communities United, our members, and our community partners, remain steadfastly committed to the local control of all Newark resources, including our public schools. We will continue to organize and fight for local control, for a moratorium on charter-school expansion, for full funding for our public schools, and for an end to the corporate driven, neighborhood destabilizing ‘One Newark’ plan.” The full op-ed can be found at http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/16/03/03/op-ed-what-has-happened-to-the-mayor-ras-baraka-we-put-into-office/.

Public school advocates have grown increasingly wary of the Mayor’s strategy to stop the expansion of Wall Street-backed charter schools in Newark since his appointees to the Newark Planning Board approved an Uncommon Charter School in the city last November. Critics claim that the Mayor’s words do not match with the actions of his Administration.

Member organizations of the Alliance for Newark Public Schools include the Newark NAACP, the Newark Teachers Union, the American Federation of Teachers, NJ Communities United, Parents Educating Parents, the Coalition for Effective Public Schools, Operating Engineers, Local 68, City Administrators & Supervisors Association, the Newark Teachers Association, the Secondary Parents Council, and the Laundry Distribution & Food Service Workers Local 3.

This is the letter sent to Mayor Baraka:

Dear Mayor Baraka:
The Alliance for Newark Public Schools and the organizations that comprise our table, have grown increasingly concerned with the actions of your office in regards to protecting traditional public schools and moving a comprehensive, locally controlled community schools program. We’re troubled that the Charter school industry is implementing a tried and true strategy from their political playbook – one that on the surface promotes a so-called “unity” strategy, but that in reality divides your base of supporters.
To this end, the Alliance for Newark Public Schools does not support the South Ward Community Schools Initiative that allows Brick to continue their quest to become a charter school.  The Community Schools initiative was meant to be the local alternative to Wall Street-backed charter expansion in Newark.  Our push for community schools was a result of the countless student, parent, and community efforts included in the “Newark Promise” plan to protect traditional public schools in our city.
We believe it is in the best interest of the Newark Public Schools and City Hall for Brick to sign a five year commitment preventing traditional public schools from submitting charter applications during their transition into community schools.
As Mayor, you have many tools available that would slow or stop charter school expansion in the City of Newark. First and foremost, your appointees to the Newark Planning Board have the authority to approve or deny applications on land use decisions. We request you to use your influence as Mayor to encourage the Planning Board appointees to deny any further land use decisions that would allow for the expansion of Charter schools. The Planning Board’s approval of the Uncommon Charter school in November is a threat to democratic control of our public schools.
The Governor has demonstrated his animosity towards the City of Newark and our public schools. He is clearly holding our city hostage and publicly committed to “run over” democracy in our city. We ask that you stand with us for our public schools through your words and more importantly through your actions.
Protecting our public schools is the issue that galvanized us to support your bid to become Mayor in 2014, and it is the issue that will continue to divide us.
Sincerely,
Deborah Smith Gregory, Chairperson
The Alliance for Newark Public Schools  (member organizations):
Newark Teachers Union                                                                                                                                              NJ American Federation of Teachers                                                                                NJ Communities United                            Parents Educating Parents                                                            Newark NAACP                                                                                           Coalition for Effective Public Schools                                                                                                          Operating Engineers, Local 68                                                                                                                                 City Administrators & Supervisors Association                                                                                              Newark Teachers Association                                                                                                                        Secondary Parents Council                                                                                                                               Laundry Distribution & Food Service Workers Local 3
CC:
Lauren Wells, Chief Education Officer, City of Newark Christopher Cerf, Superintendent of Newark Public Schools
Ariana Perillo, Chairperson of Newark Public Schools Advisory Board
Monique Baptist Goode, Project Manager, South Ward Community Schools Initiative

 

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