Trying to fend off the relentless privatization of Newark’s public schools—with all its implications for the system’s children and employees—is a nascent, fragile coalition of unions, students, parents, and politicians that took to the city’s icy streets Dec. 9 for a “day of action.”
I wish I could agree with some of the organizers that the march to school headquarters and City Hall was an extraordinary success. But, after 50 years as a journalist, I won’t start lying to you now—the effort to block state-imposed “reforms” like busting employee unions, expanding charter enrollments, eliminating neighborhood schools, and warehousing the neediest students in underfunded public schools is going to need a lot more than a march by 300 people.
Yes, it was cold. Yes, it rained. Yes, the Chris Christie sycophants who are gradually destroying public education in Newark and New Jersey’s other large cities can do their work in heated offices and don’t have to march through wintry weather to achieve their objectives. But it’s not their jobs, not their rights, not their pensions, not their children—who are at risk.
The Newark schools enroll 40,000 children and employ 7,000 workers. Union leaders and politicians who attended the rally represent tens of thousands.
And yet only 300 people showed up?
It’s going to take more than 300 people to block the Christie bulldozer.
I support the idea of a grand coalition of groups and political leaders taking direct action in the streets to focus attention on the neo-colonial operation of the Newark schools by a Republican state administration that doesn’t care about the city’s children. It’s exciting.
I also agree with Kristin Towkaniuk, the president of the Newark Student Union, who said the joint effort “got some hype”—some attention, and that’s essential.
“You saw political figures there,’’ she said after the march. “It shows we’re getting respect.’’
The march on school board headquarters was capped by an effort by Kristin and others to deliver a “report card” to Cami Anderson, the Christie-appointed state superintendent of schools.
The report card—a joint effort by the students, Communities United New Jersey and the Newark Education Working Group—gave Anderson failing grades on such issues as equity, college access, treatment of faculty and staff, school facilities, local control, transparency and school closings.
Kristin, a 16-year-old junior at Science Park High School, was blocked from entering the school board headquarters by security guards.
“We asked that three of us be allowed to deliver the report card in person but the superintendent of the Newark schools didn’t want to meet with Newark students,’’ Kristin said.
The action was coordinated with a national day of action led by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO. The Newark Teachers Union is an AFT local.
Weingarten, who said protests were under way in 90 cities across the country, came to the city to denounce the Newark school administration for cutting needed services to children, including guidance counseling. “How could this system not care about the children?” she asked.
Antoinette Baskerville, the head of the Newark School Advisory Board, invoked the memory of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader and South Africa’s first democratically elected president and compared the Newark Student Union to the young people in that nation’s black townships who rebelled against the oppressive apartheid regime.
“Fight for local control of the Newark Public Schools– and long live the Newark Student Union,” she said.
Joe Del Grosso, the NTU president, warned that the coalition had to act to ensure “the promise of public education stays alive.” He added, “A free and democratic country cannot survive without free, public education.’’
At City Hall, interim Mayor Luis Quintana, called for the return of the schools to local control and complained the state-controlled administration was staffed with outsiders. He criticized his predecessor, now US Sen. Cory Booker, for supporting Anderson and the state-run operation.
“City Hall is no longer for sale,” he said.
That’s all great. And I’m willing to concede the point made by Michael Dixon, an NTU vice president, who said this was a “first step” toward greater mass action.
But mass action in the streets has to be linked to concrete legislative action—supporting full funding of Newark schools, putting limits on the expansion of charter and voucher schools, ending the assault on the rights of unionized teachers and other school employees, protecting pensions and benefits. The courts have to be used to vindicate the rights of children. At yesterday’s rally, state Sen. Ronald Rice said he believed the best minds in education law in the state should come together to plan a federal court effort to return Newark to local control.
And educators and parents in the suburbs have to face this–this is more than Newark’s fight. The foundation plutocrats—Zuckerberg,, the Gates, Broad, the rest of them—are infiltrating suburban districts as well. Look at what is happening in Montclair and Highland Park.
Get it straight: There are people, powerful people, who believe public education should be privatized. Who believe teachers should not belong to
unions. Who want to cut pensions, benefits, and salaries for all public employees. A handful of people chanting in the streets won’t defeat them.
Public education is endangered everywhere. And Del Grosso is right—you don’t have a free country without free, public education.