Wanted: More public school heroes

Deborah Gregory Smith opens rally yesterday in Trenton with Mildred Crump, the president of the Newark City Council.
Deborah Gregory Smith opens rally yesterday in Trenton with Mildred Crump, the president of the Newark City Council.

It was all there yesterday in Trenton. Frustration with  20 years of failed state education policy. The invigorating idealism of young people who haven’t yet learned to accept the lies of dissembling politicians. The justified anger at the disrespect behind Chris Christie’s attitude toward  Newark,  Paterson, Jersey City, and Camden—the idea that, because he believes black and brown men and women cannot be trusted, aren’t smart enough,  to govern themselves and their schools, Christie will have to let his rich white friends do it.

“We have brought to Trenton, to the Legislature, the voices of many who are not often heard here,’’ said Deborah Gregory Smith, the head of the Newark NAACP, who coordinated the two-hour rally on the steps of the Statehouse. “But we need more people here—and we will be back.’’

Kristin Towkaniuk, president of the Newark Student Union: "We pledge to love and protect each other."
Kristin Towkaniuk, president of the Newark Student Union: “We pledge to love and protect each other.”

The public schools need more heroes. Fewer equivocators.

More who recognize the rigged system that strips public schools of resources, favors the privatized schools with construction funds, enrolls (and keeps)  only the best students in charters, then declares neighborhood schools failures and closes them.

It needs more women and men who recognize, as former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver  (D-Essex) said yesterday,  “The erosion of public education means the erosion of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The rally held promise. Rival unions—like the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and the state American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—joined together and, together, they ceded leadership to community organizations that, in the past, were often ignored by labor.  The demonstrators came, not just from Newark, but also from Paterson and Camden and Jersey City and suburbs like Highland Park and Montclair.

And the promise seemed so possible in the words of members of the Newark Students Union (NSU) who chanted their pledge, as they have on the streets of Newark, to “love and protect each other” as they confronted intractable power and the wealth of hedge funds.

NJ NAACP President Richard Smith: "an attack at the heart of public education." Next to him is Donna Chierra, president of the state AFT
NJ NAACP President Richard Smith: “an attack at the heart of public education.” Next to him is Donna Chierra, president of the state AFT

“I love you,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson to the students who made the most noise and offered the most hope for the struggle to save public education from the privatizers who have access  to great wealth and apparently bottomless political support. Baskerville-Richardson is the president of the ignored and disrespected– but popularly elected– Newark school board.

Melissa Katz
Melissa Katz

NSU members were not the only young people at the rally. Melissa Katz, a teacher education student at The College of New Jersey, spoke of how the privatization movement included allowing untrained Teach for America (TFA) students in inner-city classrooms. “They should not be replacing experienced, dedicated teachers,” she said.

There were signs, too, of growing political strength as nearly a dozen legislators came to the Statehouse steps to declare their support for an idea that is a no-brainer for the suburbs but seems forbidden to city residents—well-funded local public schools run by local citizens.  They included Oliver and state Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex)–both consistent backers of locally controlled public schools– and even state Sen. Theresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Yet, even in the signs of strength, there were indications the struggle is far from won.  While several hundred did show up—estimates ranged from 300 to 500—it was not yet the kind of crowd that would impress the undecided and the indifferent.

Sen. Ruiz speaks to rally. Next to her is Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin
Sen. Ruiz speaks to rally. Next to her is Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin

And the messages of support from politicians were not all clear and ringing. Ruiz, for example, said she was there because the school administration of state-appointed Newark superintendent Cami Anderson had ignored the wishes of the people of the city. “When we are discussing change, everyone should be at the table,” she said, but then added the protesters’ concerns would be noted when she met “ behind closed doors” with fellow legislators.

Ruiz apparently didn’t get the idea that having everyone at the table and meeting behind closed doors were contradictory—just the sort of contradictory ideas that allow Newark schools to remain under incompetent state control despite reaching standards for a return to local governance. And too few of the state politicians spoke directly to the problem of privatized charter schools sucking public assets away from public schools.

Still, the rally succeeded in showing the concerns of Newark residents about their schools had implications for the entire state.

Richard Smith, the state NAACP president,  said it clearly—privatizing public schools is “an attack at the heart of public education.” He added:

“The school privatizers are attacking our public schools, spreading propaganda against them, working against them behind the scenes.”

Smith demanded “free public schools –no lotteries.”  Lotteries are used to determine which school children will attend charter schools, although the  lotteries often are rigged to ensure children with the most needs don’t have the chance to get in.

“If we allow charters, we put our democracy at risk. We’re not against charter schools…per se. But we are against any entity that takes away public funds from public schools.”

Wendell Steinhauer,  the president of the New Jersey Education Association, while  not directly attacking charters, emphasized that schools must be kept out of the hands of privatizers.

PHOTORALLYWENDELL“The public schools belong to us,” he said. “We built those schools. We paid for those schools. We are not going to let anyone take them away.”

Donna Chiera, the president of the New Jersey State Federation  of Teachers, declared, “Our kids are not for sale.”

Marie Corfield, a Flemington teacher who confronted Christie at one of his town hall meetings, warned the state’s attitude toward Newark couldn’t be ignored because privatization is spreading to the suburbs. “We must stop this madness,” she said.

Baskerville-Richardson pointed to the contradiction inherent in Cami Anderson’s  attacks on school employees and her insistence she is trying to help the city’s children. “You cannot hate me and love my child,” she said.

She warned that, if Anderson’s “One Newark” plan to close neighborhood schools while expanding charters isn’t stopped, “We will end up with only 10 or 15 public schools left in the city.” It now has 70. “This is criminal and we must not let it happen.”

Ras Baraka--Get Cami out of town
Ras Baraka–Get Cami out of town

Baskerville-Richardson introduced  Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka, on leave from his position as Central High School principal and a critic of the “One Newark” plan.  He described how Anderson was stripping public schools of resources, then closing them because they were failing.

“That doesn’t sound like school reform to me,” he said. “That sounds like the dismantling of public education.”

He indirectly mocked his rival, Shavar Jeffries, who has called for ways of working with Anderson.

“I’ve been asked how I’m going to work with the superintendent,” said Baraka. “Yeah, I’m  going to work with her—I’m going to help her find the fastest way out of town.”

Former Gov. Richard Codey, still a state senator, said the people of Newark had the opportunity of creating a “sea change”  by electing Baraka.

State Sen. Ron Rice
State Sen. Ron Rice

Rice,, however, offered the most sobering assessment. Without continued action, he warned, the school privatizers will eventually destroy public education.

“We cannot stop until all public schools are safe,” he said.

  1. An AWESOME DAY it was!!!

  2. Rice said, “Without continued action, he warned, the school privatizers will eventually destroy public education.” If you need any proof, just look at what happened to New Orleans after the disaster of Katrina. We cannot afford to have parallel school systems, one that is privately run (charter schools) with an unelected school board and a budget that residents don’t get to vote on. “Choice” is just a phony baloney bumper sticker word to mask the destruction of public schools in America. Bob Braun is right, charter schools taking public money should be banned. If you want to start a charter school, then do it with private money.

  3. Thank you for the balanced, broad coverage of the NJEdMarch 27 Rally in Trenton. We will not be silenced about what is happening to our community. This separate and unequal treatment of our public school children that has been created by corporate driven education reformists is a civil rights issue that must be exposed, addressed and eliminated!

    Bob Braun: Ms. Gregory-Smith, what a marvelous job you did. Congratulations.

  4. The movement is getting stronger. Camden and Paterson…..the beginning of a statewide coalition..

  5. We face forces of immense power and incomprehensible wealth. and no scruples. And there are no givens. I do not assume victory.

    Yet…these things give me hope:
    1. that there was a rally.
    2. that rival unions joined together, and even more, that they yielded leadership to community organizations.
    3. Newark Students Union!
    4. Mother Crusader: Newark does not stand alone. The whole state stands with Newark. http://mothercrusader.blogspot.com/2014/03/we-all-stand-together-statewide.html

  6. As long as we are tied to the Democratic Party machine we cannot succeed in beating back corporate education reform. We need a party that is from and for the 99%, not the !%!

  7. Does the njea attend these marches? If not, WHY NOT!!??
    They seem to sit back, take our money, and watch us get screwed!!

    Bob Braun: The NJEA was an integral part of the March 27 rally. Not only did its president, Wendell Steinhauer, speak, but also I saw NJEA representatives among the marches, including some from as far away as Pequannock.

  8. […] the “baby” of what then was a chain of weeklies that went up and down the East Coast. Deborah P. Smith-Gregory, my journalism teacher at Seton Hall University’s Upward Bound project in 1983, brought me […]

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