Newark voters go to the polls April 16 but the real question they face in the school board election isn’t printed on the ballot. It’s a question that’s brutal, clear and stark–a question that, maybe, no one wants to face:
Do Newark’s voters genuinely want to improve public schools or would they rather continue to allow scarce public funds to be used instead to replace public schools with privately-operated but publicly funded charter schools?
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, despite promises to support an independent school board, is once again backing his own so-called “unity slate” that continues to support the growth of charter schools and the “One Newark” enrollment plan that feeds students to the privately-operated charters and artificially keeps up their enrollment to the detriment of public schools.
In his first run for mayor in 2014, Baraka demanded an end to “One Newark.” He quickly changed into a proponent of charter schools–although he publicly contends they are growing too fast. Backing pro-charter and pro-“One Newark” school board candidates is hardly a way of slowing the growth of privatized schools. That’s a high-stakes con game–and the children in public schools are always the losers.
Baraka’s slate, powered by his political organization and fund-raising ability, will be difficult to beat but, this year, it faces a slate led by a popular incumbent, Leah Z. Owens, who, three years ago, ran successfully as a member of the mayor’s first “unity slate.”
Owens is a former Newark teacher. She is now a doctoral candidate at Rutgers and adjunct professor at Essex County College and New Jersey City University. Owens says she is running to “finish some unfinished business.”
Owens–joined by veteran public school activist and US Army Reserve Captain Denise Cole and special education advocate Saafir Jenkins–say they want a full discussion of the impact of charter schools on conventional public schools.
“We can become the catalyst for improving the public schools,” says Cole. “If we improve the public schools, then why do charter schools need to exist?”
“Let’s face it, ” says Owens, “the charters are not doing anything the public schools are not. There’s the impression that, somehow, the charters are safer, but there’s no real evidence of that. It’s a perception.”
Jenkins, a finance specialist and leader of the city’s Special Education Parents Advisory Committee (SEPAC), says he sees the election as a way of questioning “whether we truly want equity and excellence” in the public schools.
Owens says she wants an “impact study” to determine the role played by privatized charters in the problems facing the public schools and their students. She also wants the city school board to have some say in the operation of the charter schools the board is forced to subsidize; ironically, while charter school proponents can serve on–and make policy for– the city school board and the public schools, the city school board has little say in the operation of charters.
“This election is about privatization,” Owens says. Cole says it’s about giving Newark residents and their elected school board a “say-so” in the operation of both charter and public schools.
Of course, raising questions about privatization is likely to bring out the pro-charter crowd and its money–including the legions of residents of outside communities like Montclair, the home of Christopher Cerf, a nationally known proponent of charter expansion and state-imposed superintendent of Newark schools for three years. Outsiders can’t vote–but they can donate and organize and make a difference if turnout is , as usual, low.
Charter growth in Newark was initially slow, even under state control that began in 1995. But the election of Republican Gov. Chris Christie and his political alliance with former Mayor, now US Sen., Cory Booker, led to unrestrained charter growth. Booker and Christie openly conspired to make Newark “the capital of charter schools.”
The process began with the appointment of Booker political ally Cami Anderson as state-imposed superintendent. She began a campaign of closing public schools, selling off their assets and replacing public schools with charters. Her most powerful tool–the “One Newark” enrollment machine that destroyed some neighborhood schools and dispersed children to schools throughout the city and provided charters with students.
In 2015, she was replaced by Christopher Cerf. Cerf, a Montclair resident, was a consultant hired by Christie to come up with the enrollment plan that became Anderson’s “One Newark.” Then Christie made him state education commissioner. After Anderson’s presence led to mass street demonstrations –mostly because of “One Newark–the governor appointed Cerf to run the state-operated district.
Under the Christie-Booker-Anderson-Cerf leadership, charters blossomed like poisonous mushrooms after a summer rain.
So, now, nearly a third of the district’s billion-dollar budget will be transferred to charters–and, within just a few years, about half of all Newark students will be in charter schools. What’s left of the public school system–under-financed but required to take on the neediest students–could very well collapse.
And the public schools will be replaced–with maybe just a few allowed to continue to enroll the students the charters don’t want. The most difficult students.
Replaced–as in New Orleans–with a virtual charter-only district. The feverish dream of Cory Booker who wants to take his pro-privatization, pro-charter, pro-voucher, anti-union and anti-public school message all the way to the White House..
The members of the “Children over Politics” slate are strong candidates–far more knowledgeable, experienced and impassioned than members of the mayor’s slate (if there’s any doubt, watch the videotape of the latest debate)–but Baraka controls the kind of organization that will get out the votes and raise the money needed to keep control.
“We’re for the children, not the power-brokers,” says Owens.
Owens, Cole, and Jenkins–A-5, A-6, and A-7 on the ballot–are not the only critics of the unbridled expansion of charters in Newark. Yolanda Johnson–A-4 on the ballot–is probably the most outspoken of the critics of charters and the enrollment plan that fuels their growth.
“Just look at the number of schools closed by Cami Anderson,” she urged at a recent candidates’ forum, referring to the former state-appointed superintendent. Anderson began the destruction of the city’s neighborhood schools–along with the acceleration of the once robust private school sector in the city.
Johnson denounced the practice of “co-location”–forcing public schools to share buildings with charters. Often, the conditions for charter students are far better than they are for public school students in the same building, she says.
“Public school children should have the same quality school buildings as the charters,” she insisted.
The forum exposed the real weaknesses in the mayor’s slate when two members could not identify what the state’s School Development Authority (SDA) does. The SDA builds public schools–in Newark and throughout the state; Christie used another agency–the state Economic Development Authority (EDA)–to channel tens of millions of public dollars to charter schools.
But, in this race, the obvious lack of experience of Baraka’s candidates is balanced by Baraka’s political clout and money. That lack of experience will help the mayor maintain his control over the school board, despite his promises to allow it to be independent.
Cole insists that parents and other Newark residents can change the direction of school policy.
“We can be the beginning of change,” she says. “And we can make the public schools the parents choose. They will have real choice.”
insist that the school board ensure regular public schools are well-financed and well-run.
“They can be the schools parents choose,” Cole says .