The Star-Ledger’s alternative universe–and the reality in Newark

John Abeigon--NTU president
John Abeigon–NTU president

If you read the state’s largest newspaper or its digital version, NJ.COM, you will expect that. on Tuesday, thousands of angry teachers will march together into the next meeting of the Newark school board. Of course, that will not happen. But in the alternate universe populated by The Star-Ledger’s chief editorial writer, the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) is “a potent political force in town”–and that “potent political force” has called for a massive demonstration against state-appointed superintendent Christopher Cerf.

But, of course, the NTU will have no such showing Tuesday or any other day. The union’s president, John Abeigon, has called for a mass demonstration at the board meeting. But, like most of what passed for community in Newark, the union and its members are demoralized and confused–shocked into a sort of numbness by events like Mayor Ras Baraka’s conversion from a political street-fighter into a kind of political pacifist who believes everything will be fine as long as we all think positive thoughts–and pretend moneyed interests from outside Newark are not taking over the best of the city’s schools and students with his help. He wants to be reelected.

It’s just been one thing after another for the once hopeful people. The shock of a $75 million budget shortfall. The cynical use of the new tenure law to fire teachers unfairly. The co-opting and silencing of vocal community leaders. The discovery of lead poisoning in the schools’ water. The working assumption that the parents of virtually all special education children should be talked into a less robust program for their kids. And, of course, the pumping of more than $200,000 into the Newark school board race to ensure the victory of a “unity slate” led by pro-charter forces and endorsed by the mayor.

The pro-charter group, according to The Star-Ledger’s literally fabulous narrative, has come into Newark to enlighten and liberate charter school parents, organize them, and beat back the bad guys like the NTU and state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex). Because, the newspaper piece argues, charters are much better than traditional public schools–and now they have the political muscle to enforce their will–sorry, no, liberate and enlighten far many more.

One wonders, of course, why The Ledger does not  talk about the leader of the charter group–one Muhammad Akil, a former operative for Jersey City mayor Steve Fulop, who once told an audience that “all white people have a little Hitler in them.” Fulop had to let Akil go–but his rhetorical flourishes weren’t the only problem. Akil, however, has attracted a lot of outside money–a lot of outside money has been foisting charters on the residents of the city for years–to his organization, Parent Coalition for Excellent Education (PC2E).

But a sketchy group with an even sketchier leader dealing a well-financed political blow to a depressed community betrayed by no one less than a mayor who had promised a return to traditional public education is hardly a readable narrative. No, the piece written by the newspaper’s editorial writer believes, instead, that The Good Guys–PC2E–vanquished The Bad Guys–the “potent political force” of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) and their lazy and selfish members–and, suddenly, a whole new bright future beckons for the children of the city.

Because the children in the city shouldn’t have what children in the suburbs have. They should have white-operated charters run by people from outside the city. Because they just know better.

What utter rot. Pure fiction. Pure fantasy. An alternate universe.

I am not going to engage in any more debates about whether charter students perform better than traditional public school students. The newspaper can cite a study and I can cite a rebuttal. And, in any event, there never will be charter schools for all children–because charters don’t want all children. Relative performance is not the point.

Paul Tractenberg
Paul Tractenberg

Here’s all I need to know and, frankly, all anyone needs to know:

  1. 1. New Jersey violates the state and federal constitutions by allowing the maintenance of an apartheid public school system that keeps black and brown children separated from white children every day of their lives. Both the state’s courts, its governors, and its legislators are guilty of cowardice on a monumental scale for refusing to correct this problem. Its mainstream media don’t event talk about racism and racial isolation any more. It’s not good for circulation and for clicks.  For texts, see the state Supreme Court case known as Morristown vs. Jenkins. See also this scholarly study on apartheid schools  by Rutgers law professor Paul Tractenberg.
  2. In 1969, a Jersey City lawyer named Harold Ruvoldt Jr. filed a case that would become known as Robinson v. Cahill and, then, Abbott vs. Burke. Ultimately, these cases would produce a variety of school aid laws. But, just as the courts, the executive, and the lawmakers have been too timid to enforce the law against discrimination in New Jersey’s schools, they also have refused to fully fund the school aid formula–which is now billions behind what it should be.
  3. Twenty years later, the Legislature enacted a law permitting the state to take over failing school districts. The state constitution made education a state, not a local, responsibility–and, so, ultimately, it would be the state’s responsibility to do whatever was necessary to provide all children with safe and clean schools and the best resources necessary. The buck stopped with the state.

Consider the combined power of those three events. In a culture dedicated to its children, in a society where the rule of law governed, in a moral atmosphere where fairness and justice were compelling themes–the people of New Jersey had everything they needed to ensure that traditional schools would succeed.

Well, almost everything. What it did not have was the political will–or, more accurately, the politically courageous leaders who would have followed what seemed like the inevitable path toward justice. Instead, politics as usual provided ways of evading the obvious solutions. Valves to let out the pressure created by a demand for justice.

If desegregation had been enforced–if the success of the court-ordered Morristown/Morris Township school merger had been copied throughout New Jersey–then most of the mess we have now could have been avoided.

Integrated schools are good schools; racially isolated schools are not.

But, no, New Jersey never developed the leaders who could see beyond the fear and the racism, to point to a state, to articulate a future, where children of all races went to school together. And learned together.

The school aid fight, in a way, was the price the cowardly paid for refusing to integrate the public schools. The money, and lots of it, was an effort to make up for the deprivation caused by racial isolation–an isolation that has economic as well as social dimensions. But, in the end, the political leaders–starting with Christie Whitman and her 30 percent tax cut–played to greed the way her predecessors played to fear of the other.  The incumbent, Chris Christie, just flatly refuses to obey the law.

The state takeover law, far from forcing the state to live up to its responsibility, instead provided an unexpected out. Just as the social pressure created by demands for integration was eased by the promise–the broken promise–of more and more money, the social pressure that should have demanded state accountability was eased with an entirely new and, for its proponents, a clever idea. Instead of repairing the schools, they would give some away.

A fraud called choice.

There are people far more expert on the impact of the fraud of choice than I–but what it does is lie to people who have been lied to over and over again. These are parents who are told that, if only they had choice, they could have schools like those in, say, Millburn, or Montgomery, or Montclair, or Scotch Plains.

But that will never happen. We do not live in a society where black, brown, and poor people have the “choice” to give up their apartment on Clinton Place and move to Wyoming Avenue in Millburn and send their children to the schools there.

Ah, but some can go to charter schools–where a small measure of enforced exclusivity can create the illusion of freedom from the problems afflicting city life. Where “those” children–the slower, the foreign, the troubled–can be tossed out.  Where test scores can be artificially manipulated by manipulating admissions. And these schools, in turn, create a small cadre of politically engaged people who are ready to defend what they have–even, as it does in Newark, if that means denying all other children resources they desperately need.

Here’s what charters are saying: When there are not enough lifeboats, some people drown and, so long as it is not my kid, we don’t care. Not our problem. What makes it even more cynical is that the charters are helping the traditional schools drown by sucking money from them. The deepest circle of hell in The Star-Ledger’s political universe was glimpsed in the writer’s words about how the state provided money to help the charters. “The state should provide more help to ease this transition, as it did with a one-shot appropriation this year,” he wrote.

What? That was money robbed from the public schools–the schools that must take all comers. Then he suggests cutting administrative waste. Like the cuts that led to the lead poisoning of the city’s children? Or the astronomical absenteeism rate caused by laying off attendance counselors?

Taking money from charters, says our innocent writer, is “knee-capping” them; taking it from public schools is “cutting administrative waste.”

The writer was clueless about what happens in Newark–but, then, again, so was the mayor who begged for money for public schools, then saw it given to charters. And found that acceptable.

Here is the reality and here is the political choice: Fight for a public school system that serves all children well–by demanding an end to racism, by demanding full funding of the law, and by demanding the state stop the privatization of public education and its concomitant transfer of funds to private hands? 

Or, will  you settle for a pressure valve of charter schools that will keep the oppressed down and create the illusion of progress for the more politically active?

This has nothing to do with unions fighting education reform–although that’s what editorial writers who don’t know Newark or history blather about.

That’s an illusion. That’s an alternative universe. Face reality and act on it. Yeah, it can be done. Probably in the streets.









  1. The people of Newark and other urban areas will one day mourn the time when they gave up control of their schools to privately operated entities which they have absolutely no control over. They will live in a future where if they do not like something about their child’s school, the answer will be tough luck, move on, get out of here, you have no voice. Instead of this kind of a future, the citizens of Newark should be marching in the streets and demanding that the traditional public schools be returned to them and be made great through proper funding. The Washington State Supreme Court had it right in September 2015 when they ruled that charters are not truly public schools because they aren’t governed by elected boards and therefore not accountable to voters.

    Bob Braun: Good points, all.

  2. Readers will be appalled and hear echoes in this piece from Chicago:

    The Chicago School – How Chicago elites imported charters, closed neighborhood schools, and snuffed out creativity.

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