Newark’s voters won’t be able to stop Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to close and sell off the city’s neighborhood public schools and expand charters unless they elect Ras Baraka mayor. That is not an endorsement. That’s not even an opinion. That’s a fact. Baraka has turned the election into a referendum on Christie’s privatization policies and, if Baraka loses, the governor and his agent in Newark, Cami Anderson, will use his loss as a powerful argument to continue to bulldoze public schools in the city. Even if Baraka wins, it will just be the beginning of the effort to stop selling and closing Newark schools.
Baraka and the city’s public school supporters face a tough fight. Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, the turncoat Democrat who campaigned for Christie last fall, will do whatever he can to stop Baraka. So will the rest of the Essex Democratic party organization. The big money—from Republicans as well as Democrats, from Essex County, the rest of New Jersey, and even from outside New Jersey—will be flowing to Shavar Jeffries’ campaign to stop Baraka.
Jeffries, a charter school supporter, has been a loyal champion of Anderson and even doubted she sent out the racist letter last November warning that the city’s children would “get into trouble” if teachers attended a convention and schools were closed. The letter was sent out to thousands of city school children. Anderson later insisted it was “only a draft,” although it bore her signature and was printed on her stationery.
“I can take all the abuse, the punches, and the arrows—whatever—that will be thrown my way,” he said during an hour-long interview. He said his biggest challenger won’t really be Jeffries but the ”county organization” that has the money to spread around the city—and will be joined by the resources of the Republican governor who worked closely with DiVincenzo and other county Democrats to defeat Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono.
“But I honestly believe the people of the city are much more intelligent, much more involved, much more engaged now-–and they will be able to see through the smoke and mirrors,” Baraka said. “Some of them will take the turkeys and the gifts but do the right thing anyway. They know we don’t need the managers and the lawyers and the political bosses to be in charge of Newark anymore.”
Baraka has received the endorsement of state Sen. and former Gov. Dick Codey—but Codey himself, despite his popularity among New Jersey’s voters, has been isolated by New Jersey’s Democrats who see Christie as their leader.
Baraka, on leave as principal of Central High School, has led the opposition to Christie’s school policies in Newark. He says he is not opposed to charter schools but will try to block the vast expansion of the privately operated schools promoted in Anderson’s “One Newark” plan-–an expansion that will close at least four neighborhood schools this year.
The mayoral candidate said Anderson and the charters are working together, not to improve education for all children in the city, but to help charters to expand and “protect their brand.” The charters, he said, refuse to take over and manage entire public schools but insist on using public property—sold to them by Anderson—to begin their own schools.
“They know they can’t improve already open schools simply by taking them over,” says Baraka. “That’s why they want to start entire new schools with only one or two grades.”
He ridiculed Anderson’s approach and insisted that, if she and her charter school partners knew the secret to improving education, they should share it with all schools.
“At the end of the day, if you have discovered fire, then you should share it, let us all know how to do this beautiful thing,” he said.
What is really happening, he said, is that Anderson is fulfilling the hopes of Christie and former Mayor Cory Booker to help charter schools increase their enrollments in large cities—because they have been blocked from expanding in suburbs by voters who can control their school boards.
“This isn’t about helping children—this is about expansion. They want more buildings. They want more real estate. I am asking—‘Why must you have all of it?’ Then they blame it on the parents. They say the parents are demanding space in charter schools. But parents are not demanding more charter schools, they’re demanding quality education.”
If the people running charter schools wanted to help the children of the city, they would share their allegedly effective practices with neighborhood public schools, he said.
“They’re saying they just want the buildings. It’s this kind of passive-aggressive approach that I’m against. They go forward, they expand, and they watch other people get destroyed. Ultimately, if this were really about the education of all the kids, they (charter schools) would want to get together with everyone and say, ‘This isn’t just about how do I improve my school—my charter school—but this is about how we improve neighborhood schools, so we have quality education for all the children in the city of Newark. But they just want to expand and we have become the victims of that expansion.”
He said charter schools are creating a three-tiered education system. Suburban public schools that are democratically run. Charter schools in the cities that are privately run. And, finally, inner-city public schools where the poorest children with the most difficult problems are isolated and segregated.
Baraka said Anderson doesn’t have “magic dust” to spread over schools to make them work and has “no magic tricks” to improve education. He said, as mayor, he would provide alternatives to Anderson’s plan and would demand the immediate return to local control of schools. “The state has had the Newark schools for almost 20 years, a generation, and even they admit the state has failed,” he said.
The candidate said he doesn’t really believe contentions by Christie and other supporters of privatized education that what they are trying to do is provide school choice to parents and children in Newark and other large cities where schools have been taken over by the state. Baraka points out that the state’s public schools are badly segregated—a recent report from Rutgers referred to New Jerseys system of public education as “apartheid schools” where many black and brown children go to class every day, every year, without ever seeing a white student—and many white students go to class without ever seeing black or brown students.
If Christie really wanted school choice, Baraka said, why doesn’t he talk about integrating the public schools in, say, Essex County, which contains almost exclusively white school districts just miles from almost exclusively black and brown districts.
“The schools are woefully segregated and the state constitution says the schools should not be segregated,” Baraka says.
Asked whether he would support a suggestion from the Rutgers study to create a single, racially integrated school district out of Essex County—in much the same way as counties run schools in Maryland—Baraka answered:
“That’s a good question. So are they saying we could get on a bus and send our kids to Millburn? I would love to see what people have to say about that.
“I would definitely support coming to the table and talking about how that would work. I mean integrating the schools is…a progressive kind of idea. I wouldn’t be opposed to it. So, if you really want school choice, and these people are fighting for school choice, then allow us go to the schools you say are the best schools. Allow us to go to Millburn and Glen Ridge and Montclair.”
He would insist on one thing, however. Residents in other towns would not be allowed to give their public schools to charters if children from Newark wanted to attend school there.