The world of bullfighting gave us the phrase—el momento de la verdad—and there is no exact translation. The English words “moment of truth” don’t capture the sense of crisis and urgency and, especially, revelation. The Newark public schools have come to the moment of truth when all players—school employees, parents, union leaders, student activists, politicians, civic organizations, state leaders—will have no choice but to reveal who they are, what they want, what they can accomplish, what they are willing to do, how they see their futures.
In how these players react, they will have to reveal the truth about themselves. And, as in the world of bullfighting, the consequences could be fatal. It is difficult, for example, to see how the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) survives a failure to stop state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson and state education commissioner David Hespe from shredding collective bargaining by imposing their so-called “reform” efforts known as “turnaround” or “renew” schools.
Three related events are merging into a crisis for the public schools and their supporters. The first is Anderson’s decision to designate nine more schools—including Weequahic and East Side high schools—as “turnaround” schools that will force employees either to give up their jobs or their contract-guaranteed working conditions. The second is Anderson’s insistence that the state grant her permission to ignore employee seniority rights so she can lay off veteran teachers to meet a budget deficit of up to $100 million that she caused. The third is the arguably felonious refusal of the state to insist that Anderson abide by the terms of the waiver of the federal No Child Left Behind requirements.
If the union cannot protect its members or their tenure rights, it will reveal the truth about itself. It will be a moment of truth. But not just the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) will be hurt—the larger New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), already compromised by its secret dealings with Gov. Chris Christie on pensions, will lose further credibility by any limit on teacher seniority rights anywhere in the state. The NTU might lose a battle in Newark, but the NJEA will be blamed for making New Jersey the next Wisconsin.
The damage to public education generally will be much broader if advocates like the Education Law Center (ELC) cannot persuade either the state or federal governments to abide by the law and insist that Anderson and her enablers in the state education department abide by federal requirements that Newark schools receive the assistance mandated by law and regulation.
In a letter to Monica Chism, a top official of the US Department of Education, ELC director David Sciarra accused Hespe and Anderson of “flagrantly” violating federal rules governing the decision to grant New Jersey a waiver of the No Child Left Behind Act. Sciarra’s’s complaint is nothing new—but the letter itself demonstrates just how unwilling both the state and federal governments are to insist that Anderson’s efforts in the city be governed by law; Sciarrra had demanded a federal investigation back in October—and federal officials agreed to open an investigation in December, but has done nothing since then.
All three events—Anderson’s decision to declare nine more “renew” or “turnaround” schools in Newark; the renewal of her demand that seniority be ignored in laying off tenured teachers, and the failure of the federal government to intervene—present this moment of truth:
Everything advocates for public education have done so far to protect neighborhood schools and the rights of their parents, employees, and children has failed. Either the players will have to change their tactics or they will have to concede defeat. Anderson, implementing Christie’s racist, pro-privatization, and corporate-based school change agenda, will win.
Anderson will win and the failure of her opponents will appear, well, embarrassing.
Mayor Ras Baraka, a man accused of being “incendiary” and “militant” by the mainstream press, was elected in an anti-Anderson campaign a year ago, but he has, sadly, accomplished nothing to dislodge her or what she has done to the children of the city. He has been brushed aside.
The elected school advisory board has taken any number of futile actions but failed to even slow Anderson’s march to what she calls reform. It has been brushed aside.
The chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, state Sen. Ronald Rice, has been treated with condescension by his fellow legislators. He has been brushed aside.
Religious leaders have been ignored. Civic leaders offer the same speeches over and over again and nothing happens. They all have been brushed aside.
The Newark Students Union has tried its best to call attention to the destruction of public education in Newark but there is only so much it can do without help. Dozens walked out of East Side this morning to protest its designation as a failing, “turnaround” school. Without support from employees and parents, the Newark Student Union’s actions–no matter how bold–cannot alone break Anderson’s hold on Newark.
This last year has been its own moment of truth about the respect shown to leaders of color—even prominent, elected leaders like Rice and Baraka and members of the school board. In a state run by Christie and allies like Steve Sweeney and Joseph DiVincenzo and George Norcross, the concerns of black and brown political, religious, and civic leaders simply do not matter.
There is time, but not much. While the NTU leadership may not be optimistic about its membership’s willingness to act, it still has the responsibility to protect those members—and protecting them just might mean getting them ready for job actions.
Yes, strikes by public school teachers are against the law—just as they were in 1970 and 1971. Gandhi broke the law. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. broke the law. Even George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin broke the law.
Breaking the law by those who seek justice is called civil disobedience.
Anderson and Hespe and their supporters have violated the law. It is called “reform” by the political thugs who run New Jersey, their powerless lackeys in the mainstream press, and the cowardly law enforcement machinery. Reform, or waiver.
The moment of truth has come. Soon, it will be too late.