The co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools last night said he would pursue an investigation into possible abuses tied to state control of the Newark schools. State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), who already is pursuing legislation aimed at blocking the closing of neighborhood schools in the state’s largest city, said he would seek subpoena power if state officials continue to refuse to provide him with information.
“Let me assure you I will be calling for an investigation into the operation of the Newark district,” Rice said at the close of a two-hour hearing in Newark City Hall about the so-called “One Newark” plan that would close, transfer to charters, redesign or otherwise “repurpose” more than a third of the schools in the state’s largest city. He predicted state education officials and Cami Anderson, the state-appointed superintendent, would probably not show up to answer questions. “If they continue to refuse to respond, then we will have to begin to demand they give us answers. We will ask for subpoena power.”
The hearing was conducted by the Legislature’s Black Caucus. Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), who chaired the session, promised additional hearings.
“We’re going to have to have an investigation,’’ said Jasey, who said she expected two or three more hearings.“We’ll have to start asking questions” of state officials.
The hearing in the Newark City Hall’s council chambers, brought out critics of educational policies pursued by Gov. Chris Christie, particularly in urban districts under direct state control. It ended with Donna Jackson, a community activist, pointing to the legislators and blaming them for failing to look into state control of Newark.
“You have allowed this,” Jackson all but shouted at the legislators. “You guys have to come in here and take some action.” She said she blamed former mayor, now U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, for bringing in Anderson, a woman who worked on his mayoral campaign.
Many of the complaints have been heard before but the hearing was significant because it brought out organizations that have been relatively silent on the growing concern about the privatization of public schools, especially through the vast expansion of charter schools.
The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), which has said little about the growing privatization movement, sent a vice president, Marie Blistan, to the hearing. She told the legislators, “It is clear that what the Christie Administration and the Departmentof Education are attempting to impose on Newark is just the beginning of an assault on the very principles of public education across the entire state of New Jersey.”
Joyce McCree, the president of the NJEA’s small affiliate in Newark, used ever stronger words, contending the Christie administration was “engaged in a systematic campaign to undermine, demonize and ultimately privatize schools.”
Early on in Christie’s first term, the NJEA had challenged the governor’s anbti-teacher position but then backed away in the face of his constant attacks. The union even ended up endorsing one of Christie’s major privatization efforts—the so-called Urban Hope Program—that has opened the way for South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross to control privatized schools in Camden.
Norcross’s efforts were criticized by Gary Frazier, a Camden activist, who told the hearing about the political boss used public school land to start a charter school. Frazier described how the city put off building a needed new school and then finally turned the property over to Norcross and the KIPP charter schools. “What is happening to Camden residents is unconstitutional,” said Frazier.
Some of the hearing was dedicated to efforts by Anderson to stifle dissent. One witness was Daryn Martin, the president of the Ivy Hill PTO who was first banned from entering the school his children attend and then charged with aggravated assault and jailed for a day on a complaint for Newark assistant superintendent Tiffany Hardrick. Martin told of how he tried to stop Hardrick and another central office staff member from tearing down notices of a parent meeting.
Several witnesses provided evidence that reforms in Newark were not working. Lauren Wells, an NYU faculty member who is now an adviser to mayoral candidate Ras Baraka, pointed out that schools slated for “renewal” by Anderson had actually done less well than conventional schools.
“Studies examining turnarounds, called here in Newark ‘renew,” find that firing teachers and replacing them does not improve instruction,” she said. (Earlier version said “now” instead of “not”. My bad. Sorry).
Rutgers researcher Mark Weber contended Anderson had provided no evidence her plan would improve schooling for the affected children. “We are not able to find any evidence that would justify the closings, charter takeovers, and “renewals” under the plan,” said Weber, a doctoral student at the university’s graduate school of education and a popular educational blogger known as “Jersey Jazzman. “Why, then, does NPS believe One Newark will do anything to improve district efficiency or student achievement?”
The senior attorney for the Education Law Center, Elizabeth Athos, said the “One Newark” plan already violated state regulations requiring school districts to have updated long-range facilities plans before they could close schools.
“These are not just paper regulations,” she told the legislators. “They should be enforced.”
John Abeigon, the executive director of the Newark Teachers Union, described the intricate funding some charter schools pursued—with corporations with the same principals involved in complicated borrowing practices to raise money to buy public school property. He called on the legislators to investigate the “Pink Hula Hoop” controversy in which a number of closely related corporations ended up with a profit-making company buying the 18th Avenue School at a discounted price.
In addition to Jasey and Rice, the other legislators who attended the hearing were state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate Education Committee; Assemblywoman and former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex); Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex); Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumer (D-Passaic); Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-Essex); Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex), and Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex).