There was a time–just a year ago–when the way a parent activist like Sharon Smith was treated at Tuesday night’s Newark school board would have caused a storm of protest. But that was before the city’s mayor, Ras Baraka, cut a deal with the governor to allow a national advocate of privately-operated charter schools to become the city’s state-appointed school superintendent. Now Smith–and many others–have been silenced through the charms and lies of one man, Christopher Cerf. Silenced and marginalized.
Not to mention co-opted and bought out.
Just in time for that governor, Chris Christie, to try to gut the school district by reducing state aid by 70 percent–while increasing state support for public schools in nearby and lily-white Essex Fells by 1,225 percent. Essex Fells–with its $175,000 annual median family income–compared to $39,000 in Newark.
Tearing the heart out of the public schools while saving charter schools from reductions. Charter advocates now hold virtually every top position in the Newark Public Schools–according to the organizational chart Cerf published.
But did Cerf or anyone on his staff or the Newark school board mention Christie’s class and race war against the people of New Jersey’s cities? Did Cerf or anyone on the staff or board mention how Christie would save charter schools while destroying public schools?
Cerf just spouted on about the “great progress” Newark has made “in the last five years”–the years of Cerf and his hireling and protégé, Cami Anderson, now safely ensconced in her own consulting firm. He called it “building on the progress” since 2011–and not one person raised even an eyebrow to wonder how disasters like “One Newark, ” the vast expansion of charter schools, and the sale and closing of public schools, continuing today, could conceivably be called “progress.”
And , after that, while members of the public spoke, Cerf busily checked his smart phone for the latest email messages–or whatever else he keeps on his handy-dandy little portable distraction, undoubtedly paid for by Newark residents.
Oh, yes, there was some criticism and that brings us back to how shabbily Sharon Smith was treated. She, with co-founder Johnnie Lattner, started the organization Parents Unified for Local School Education, or PULSE. Over the last few years, while parents and children and school employees became increasingly angry about the state’s destruction of public school schools in the city, PULSE did something about it.
It filed a civil rights complaint with the US Education Department, contending that the policies of Cerf–as state education commissioner–and his agent in Newark, Anderson–violated the civil rights of the children of Newark. The department’s Office of Civil Rights did, in fact, conclude that the negative impact of Cerf/Christie/Anderson plans fell most heavily on black and disabled students. This is what I wrote last December:
Specifically, the Christie Administration’s regime in Newark—run by former state education commissioner Christopher Cerf—must:
- Assess the academic impact on children who were forced to transfer as a consequence of closing or otherwise changing the operation of a public school.
- Determine whether children have been adversely affected by the transportation required by the enrollment practices, including their ability to participate in extracurricular activities.
- Determine whether schools—including charter and other privatized schools—actually were prepared to receive the children affected by the mass transfers; if any children were not properly served, any damage to their educational careers must be remediated.
- The district also must review the placement of special needs children and determine whether any were hurt by failing to provide proper facilities. Those adverse effects also must be remediated.
Last month, Lattner tried to talk about what happened to all of what Cerf must do to identify the harm and remediate the problems. He was stopped then by Charlotte Hitchcock, Cerf’s lawyer, who, sadly, engaged in legal semantics to deny the feds had any concerns. This month, Smith rose to demand information.
“This is about correcting the harm that the district has caused to thousands of Black and Latino children of Newark,” Smith said.
Smith pointed out the investigation resulted in an agreement binding on Cerf to reveal the harm and correct it–and to do it by June 30.
Hitchcock rose again to the defense of the man who just renamed her to the position of chief counsel.
“There was never a negative finding,” she said.
Hitchcock was talking about a formal finding–there were indeed factual findings of negative impact on the city’s children. But, instead of being straight with Smith and the other parents in the room, she retreated to legalese and Cerf, himself a lawyer, made it happen. Allowed it to happen.
That’s a little like denying a street shooting is really a murder, because no jury has yet handed down a verdict. But the person is still dead.
And then Hitchcock and then added the final insult: There won’t be any public release of information.
When Smith tried to ask another question, she was told there would be “back and forth” discussion.
No “back and forth discussion” about what Cerf and Anderson did to thousands of Newark children? This is what he called “building on the progress” earlier in the meeting.
Shamefully–let’s put that in caps–SHAMEFULLY–the school board that was elected to represent the hurting parents and children of Newark stayed silent. Yes, board member Leah Z. Owens generally called what was going on in Newark examples of “institutional racism,” but she said and did nothing else.
A group of ten parents, activists, and students mounted a brief demonstration until Cerf told Board President Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson that, “I will not tolerate this” and she obediently gaveled the room to order. Big change in her attitudes.
Baskerville-Richardson, once the hero of the effort to protect children from the predations of state masters, was generally silent. Her voice for justice is missed.
And her silence makes her complicit.
Because everyone just wants to get along now. Especially those board members with City Hall jobs. And those who are seeking higher office in the future. A good part of the anti-state movement has become part of the Ras Baraka political machine.
The kids can wait. They’ve waited for decades already. And it’s just so much nicer now to sit back and listen to Cerf talk about the progress he and Anderson accomplished.