The deal last June was a stunner for many reasons–Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Republican Gov. Chris Christie cut a bargain to bring in former state schools chief Christopher Cerf, a charter school champion, to be the city schools superintendent. It didn’t initially make a lot of sense but, after the joint Cerf/Baraka announcement later today, Tuesday, city residents might get a better idea of what happened behind closed doors last spring that led to today’s surprising result: Baraka and Christie have become partners in school reform.
As this site reported last week, Baraka and Cerf will jointly promote a so-called “community schools initiative” aimed at making just one neighborhood in the city, its impoverished South Ward, into a showcase for Baraka’s idea for school reform: local schools that also serve as centers for providing health care and other services to neighborhood residents.
And here’s another shocker: The Cerf/Baraka plan will seek at least some of its funding for the plan from funds given to the city by Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who donated $100 million to Newark to jumpstart what was supposed to be a plan–backed by former Mayor Cory Booker–to make Newark the “charter school capital of the nation.” Recent reports indicate that about $30 million of that money still exists in the accounts of the Foundation for Newark’s Future (FNF). FNF’s president, Kimberly Baxter McLain, will be part of the joint announcement at City Hall the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 1.
Baraka became mayor in the May, 2014, election primarily because of his opposition to state control, personified by then state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson–a woman who was appointed city schools chief by Cerf in 2011 when Cerf was state education commissioner. Many of the actions taken by Anderson–including the closing of public schools, expansion of charters, failure to follow state law and regulations–were either outlined in a plan Cerf wrote for the state when he was a private consultant (and paid by the same Zuckerberg money) or condoned by him when he was commissioner. And, while Cerf was state education commissioner, he explicitly endorsed Anderson’s actions.
Cerf, in short, was Anderson’s puppet master until Chris Christie sent him in to finish what Anderson started.
The anger aimed at Anderson boiled up into a massive student protest movement that, in May, almost led to the closing down of the city and the interstate highways surrounding it. By refusing to keep the highways clear and explicitly supporting the students, Baraka emerged as a champion of anti-state sentiment.
Then, a few weeks later, Baraka and Christie–a presidential candidate who needed peace in New Jersey’s largest city while he was campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire–cut their deal. Anderson was out. Cerf, despite his recent appointment as a national leader of a charter school lobbying organization, would replace her. A joint committee–but one dominated by pro-charter Christie appointments–would find a “roadmap” to local control. It was called the Newark Educational Success Board (NESB).
Christie got peace at home. No embarrassments while he is away. Indeed, he recently won the endorsement of the influential Manchester Union-Leader. The newspaper cited his ability to work with conflicting groups–“Chris Christie is a solid, pro-life conservative who has managed to govern in liberal New Jersey, face down the big public unions, and win a second term. Gov. Christie can work across the aisle, but he won’t get rolled by the bureaucrats.”
Wouldn’t be a tragic irony if Christie’s campaign got a boost from the Newark deal? Now Christie can even say he worked with the state’s largest school district and a once “hostile” mayor–that’s what Christie called Baraka–to bring “reform” to its classrooms.
Baraka’s comments after his June deal with the governor were more critical of those who criticized the bargain–including this site–than of the state. He appeared at a July rally called to denounce Cerf’s appointment, but would say nothing critical about Cerf. Instead, he called those who were suspicious of the deal “crackpots.”
The anti-state movement all but collapsed after Baraka’s conversion. The committee created to find a way to local control may have co-opted some of the most prominent critics of state control, including Jose Leonardo, the president of the Newark Student Union (NSU); parent activist Grace Sergio, and Mary Bennett, the head of an anti-state coalition. The panel imposed a gag order on itself so its deliberations remain a secret.
Baraka stopped attending the school board meetings he had used as a platform to demand an end, for example, to the “One Newark” enrollment plan. His criticisms of state control became muted–then non-existent.
And, now, just months after Baraka threatened to send police into Anderson’s office to escort her out of the city, Baraka and Cerf, the man who brought Anderson to Newark, are jointly launching an educational program aimed at Baraka’s home turf, the city’s South Ward.
This is the announcement from the mayor’s office about Tuesday’s planned press conference:
MAYOR RAS J. BARAKA AND STATE SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT CHRISTOPHER CERF TO LAUNCH “SOUTH WARD COMMUNITY SCHOOLS INITIATIVE” ON TUESDAY, DECEMBER 1, AT 10 A.M., AT NEWARK CITY HALL
Program will create and support Community Schools to offer comprehensive services and programs to empower vulnerable students; Health social services and family programs will also be offered.
Newark, NJ – November 25, 2015 – Mayor Ras J. Baraka, Newark Municipal Council Members, Chief Education Officer Dr. Lauren Wells, State Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf, and other dignitaries will launch the “South Ward Community Schools Initiative” on Tuesday, December 1, at 10 a.m., in a City Hall First Floor Rotunda press conference. City Hall is located at 920 Broad Street in Newark’s Downtown.
The initiative is designed to create and support K-12 Community Schools in the South Ward vulnerable students, school success, and positive youth development. The schools will have a vigorous curriculum and core instructional program, high standards and expectations, and an integrated focus on academics and family support. These schools will offer before-and after-school programs, health and social services, and enrichment programs for families will also be offered. The schools will also operate weekend and summer programs. The program is the beginning of the commitment to community schools as a solution to the challenges facing Newark public schools. The program model will also incorporate efforts to address socio-economic barriers facing student populations.
WHO: Mayor Ras J. Baraka Municipal Council Members Chief Education Officer Dr. Lauren Wells State Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor Foundation for Newark’s Future President and CEO Kimberly Baxter McLain
WHAT: Will launch the “South Ward Community Schools Initiative”
WHEN: Tuesday, December 1, 2015, 10 a.m.
WHERE: City Hall, First Floor Rotunda, 920 Broad Street, Newark.
Wells wrote a comprehensive proposal about community schools in September, although it did not seek to limit the project to the South Ward. That was followed by an article promoting the idea in the educational blog, The Hechinger Report, written under Baraka’s byline a few weeks ago–that article also didn’t mention the limitation to the South Ward.
Among the questions that will be raised by the joint Cerf/Baraka initiative are:
What will be the role of charter schools? The KIPP charter school chain, known as TEAM Academy, has a number of charters in the South Ward and plans to open five more in the city. Baraka did not object to plans for another chain, Uncommon Schools, to open a new school within sight of City Hall. And the so-called Brick Academy will seek to convert its two schools–Avon and Peshine, both in the South Ward–to charters in a few months.
Who will control the initiative? Not included among those slated to speak at the press conference are the elected members of the Newark school board. No member of the board has said a word publicly about the initiative at recent school board meetings. Wells’ description of the proposal makes it clear it will be run by City Hall in cooperation with the state administration–and how does that fit with the promised return of local control?
Why just the South Ward? That section of the city is not alone in facing educational problems associated with poverty, racial isolation, and underfunding of state aid.
Why would Zuckerberg money go to Baraka? Will there be conditions? How did the mayor persuade the FNF to participate?
What about state funding? How can Baraka complain about the Christie administration’s shortchanging of Newark’s public schools now that he has joined in an alliance with Christie’s man? What about the $37 million in state aid taken from public schools by Christie and given to charters? Will Baraka ask for special state funding for the South Ward schools?
Was this part of the original deal between Christie and Baraka? The joint statement issued by the mayor and the governor at the end of the June made an oblique reference to community education, suggesting that the issue was discussed by them. What else was?
How will this affect local control? Baraka has promised to support an elected school board when and if local control is returned to Newark. But he clearly has taken a major role in developing this proposal. What does that mean for local control run by a freely elected board? Or will Baraka simply control the school board by continuing to give jobs to board members as he already has to three?
What happened to grass-roots development of educational reform? Good or bad, the Cerf/Baraka initiative is clearly a top-down approach to education reform developed behind closed doors. Organizations–like PULSE-NJ–that would have been expected to participate in developing the plan have been excluded.