State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) said he believes the story of “Pink Hula Hoop” is a story about crime. That’s the quaint name given to the convoluted way in which rich and politically-connected people and wealthy organizations raised mostly public money to buy—at a discount– public property for private purposes. “The crime is in the entire set up,” Rice said. “It’s a Ponzi scheme.”
Rice made the remarks at a press conference Friday at Newark Teachers Union headquarters. He was flanked by the city’s interim mayor, Luis Quintana, and an Assemblyman, Ralph Caputo, a former Essex County schools superintendent. In the audience were the leaders of statewide teachers unions and the president of the Newark school board.
I don’t know whether Rice can prove superintendent Cami Anderson’s sale of Newark’s 18th Avenue School to the leaders of the TEAM Academy Charter Schools involved criminal activity. I think it was worse than a crime. I think it was racism. I think it demonstrated contempt for poor, powerless people. But no one ever gets indicted for racism and contempt for the poor. In Newark, they just get good jobs working in the school system—or in private companies that sell their products to school systems.
Rice made some good points. If county or federal prosecutors really wanted to be aggressive, they probably could find ways of indicting a few well-placed people. Bidding laws may have been ignored. Maybe, too, the laws governing the closing of public schools. The strange cartel of profit and non-profit corporations involved in the purchase did not appear to meet the requirements for buying school property and converting it to charter school use.
“The whole thing was engineered by (state Education Commissioner Christopher) Cerf to help his friend,” Rice said, referring to Timothy Carden, Cerf’s former business partner and head of most of the corporations that culminated in “Pink Hula Hoop,” a for-profit corporation that took title to the 18th Avenue School.
But I have little hope that a county prosecutor who serves at the pleasure of Gov. Chris Christie or a federal prosecutor who has disappointingly shown little concern for the way his predecessor—also Chris Christie– behaved in office will be aggressive. The best hope is that Rice will persuade the legislative leadership to let him conduct public hearings so that the people of Newark and New Jersey can see how shabbily people like Cerf and Anderson behave.
Why do I call it racism? The story of the sale of the 18th Avenue School—the story of “Pink Hula Hoop”—dramatically illustrates how a small number of affluent and almost exclusively white people can conspire to bend a school system that serves a predominantly black and brown population to do their will. They have access to public money–$40 million—set aside for TEAM Academy by the board of the state Economic Development Authority (EDA), on which Carden served until a short while ago. They have access to smart lawyers who can tell them how to stay within the law and still get what they want. They have friends, like Cerf, in high places. They know how to persuade newspaper writers and other media workers that charters are the salvation of urban education.
These are all things poor black and brown people do not have. They have been unable to tell the story of how the state, under the control of a right-wing GOP governor, has stripped the public schools of resources, called them failures, and awarded them to privatized charters.
I don’t know whether Cerf genuinely believes his version of school “reform” will help. I don’t know whether Anderson genuinely thinks she is right. I see it is obvious that their ideology of reform through privatization serves their financial interests and those of their friends. And I also know that, because of their connections to the rich and politically powerful, to the Tim Cardens and the Chris Christies and the Joel Kleins and the Rupert Murdochs, they don’t have to be right. They can just impose their will on other people.
They can just tell black and brown people, they can just tell poor people, to go to hell if they don’t like what they’re doing. Christie already did.
Does it bother most people in New Jersey that the parents in Newark have nothing to say about the schools their children attend? Does it trouble the state’s residents that the voters in Newark can apply no leverage whatsoever to one state-appointed dictator who can sell public property on the cheap to people just like her—white, affluent, residents of nearby suburbs?
No, I don’t think it does. Christie has done such an effective job inciting resentment against city residents, public education, public school employees, unions, and urban school systems that I am sure most people outside would either be indifferent toward or supportive of the disenfranchisement of the people of Newark. I am sure they applaud editorials that viciously depict opponents of Anderson as “shrill” and “shrieking” and “fiery” people—what they mean is scary black people—and buy into the false and slanderous narrative that Newark residents are so unruly and so dangerous that Anderson can no longer fulfill her responsibility to attend school board meetings.
The truth is—as Rutgers law professor Paul Tractenberg has so eloquently put it—New Jersey, more than tolerates, it supports an “apartheid” school system. The Pink Hula Hoop scandal is part of that apartheid system.
Apartheid isn’t just about race—just like rape isn’t just about sex. Apartheid is about power and greed. The impunity with which private interests like the TEAM Academy Charter Schools can obtain taxpayer property—as it continues to do through Anderson’s “One Newark” plan—is a more blatant declaration of racism than any sign on a Southern water fountain saying “colored only.”
Racism isn’t a crime, but it should be.