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The Race for the Future of Newark Public Schools

The degree of free-market education “reform” for Newark’s schools has become a key issue in Tuesday’s hotly contested mayoral race.

The forces behind free-market education reform have never preferred their revolutions quiet. By their political calculus, money trumps subtlety.

That pattern will be tested on Tuesday, as residents of Newark, New Jersey, elect a new mayor and help determine the fate of Newark Public Schools. A spate of dramatic education reforms has reconfigured the district in recent years, shifting masses of students and resources from public to privately managed schools. An intensifying mayoral race between two veteran Newark politicos will prove a referendum on those reforms.

Civil rights attorney Shavar Jeffries plays the free-market education reform candidate. A former charter school board chair, he’s benefited from nearly $1 million in campaign donations from Education Reform Now, an advocacy group composed of Wall Street executives.

In the opposite corner is Councilman Ras Baraka, a former high school principal and son of the late poet Amiri Baraka. Backed by labor unions, Baraka has advocated community-based approaches to school improvement, especially in bolstering support services. “We have the capacity to turn schools around,” he told Truthout. “We don’t have to close them down. We don’t have to give up on the public schools system.”

Despite Newark’s parochial politics, election watchers can’t help peering over the Hudson to New York City, where Bill de Blasio won the mayoralty, in part, by repudiating his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s imperious tenure. Bloomberg’s pro-charter and test-heavy policies, as well as many of his former staff members, have been imported wholesale to Newark.

Baraka hopes to ride De Blasio’s progressive wave. “There’s no evidence that the things we’re doing work for anybody,” he says of current reforms. Meanwhile, Jeffries has assumed the mantle of the “reform” candidate – meaning substantial continuities with the current regime.

The eventual mayor-elect will draw a tough hand, though. The district runs a deficit exceeding $50 million, stemming largely from an exodus of district students to the exploding charter school sector. The proportion of Newark students attending charters – privately managed, publicly funded schools given latitude in discipline and instruction – will rise from 25 percent to 40 percent by 2016.

Meanwhile, the most recent district reorganization plan, One Newark, would close or turn over 17 schools, while expanding the charter sector, potentially impacting thousands of students in neighborhood schools.

“It would be disastrous,” Baraka says of the plan. “This is drastic and radical. It disrupts families’ lives.”

Reform Years

With the fifth-poorest student population in the United States, Newark has long posted unflattering test scores. But its schools showed glimmers of promise in the late 2000s. Legal battles secured equity-based funding, and grassroots initiatives were burgeoning. At Central High School, where Ras Baraka was principal, graduation rates increased from around 50 percent in 2007 to over 80 percent today.

But in 2010, Chris Christie took hold of the governorship, and with it Newark’s schools (they’ve been under state control since 1995). A subsequent $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, coordinated by Gov. Christie and Mayor Cory Booker, opened Newark’s gates to an army of free-market school reform interests.

Palling around like the Laurel and Hardy of market-based school reform, Christie and Booker tapped firebrand Cami Anderson for superintendent. A hard-driving administrator with a lengthy reform pedigree, Anderson was then leading the New York district that included Rikers Island, leading Christie to quip, “You’re not really worried if she’s going to be tough enough.”

Anderson has since pushed widely reviled school policies, like the current One Newark, that have transformed swaths of the district and heightened the stakes of standardized tests. To cap it all off, Anderson has recently moved to lay off hundreds of educators. “The teachers are demoralized,” says Branden Rippey, a Newark high school history teacher. “It’s getting to the point where there’s no one who’s willing to teach in Newark.”

In this environment, mayoral candidates are judged not by the endorsements of district leaders, but by how vehemently the candidates reject them. As Baraka and Jeffries step over each other to denounce Anderson, it’s less important what the public hears than what’s happening behind the scenes.

A New Status Quo

In a March New York Times op-ed, David Brooks predictably threw his weight behind Shavar Jeffries. Most of the column recounts Jeffries’ hardscrabble Newark upbringing (his mother was murdered when he was 10) and his truly remarkable later accomplishments. Casting Baraka as a machine-politics operator beholden to entrenched labor interests, Brooks predicts a “regular vs. reformer” race. His most incisive knock on Baraka: “There are Baraka signs everywhere there.”

Brooks, as often, is clownishly mistaken. Jeffries, not Baraka, has won allies among Jersey machine-politics bigs like Joe DiVincenzo and George Norcross – not to mention the same Wall Street interests that have swayed Newark education for years. At this point, “reformer” Jeffries means the functional status quo.

Jeffries’ moneyed backers are the best indication of his allegiances. The advocacy organization Education Reform Now (ERN) has pumped at least $850,000 into an independent expenditure group that supports Jeffries, dramatically outspending Baraka in attack ads.

ERN’s board consists largely of finance executives who spend weekends dabbling in charter schools. The group wins grants from the likes of the Walton Family Foundation for efforts like sniping at teachers unions and cheerleading the charter sector.

But its core constituents are hedge-funders like Whitney Tilson. Once an ERN staffer, Tilson boosted Cory Booker and has donated consistently to Team Academy, the charter network Jeffries once chaired. In a recent blog post, Tilson endorsed Jeffries and begged his banker pals to join him in throwing cash his way: “He needs a lot of money fast,” Tilson pleaded.

Baraka doesn’t have many friends on Wall Street. But he doesn’t reject their beloved charter schools out of hand: “Charters have a right to open,” he says. Still, he worries about “hedge fund bankers interested in taking over our schools,” and he’s been unequivocal in rebuking the One Newark plan, which expands the charter footprint while diminishing district schools.

Baraka also highlights the disparate enrollments of charters. In Newark Public Schools, 15 percent of students have special needs, compared with just 9 percent at charters. Charters enroll about one-tenth as many students learning English as the district schools do. “We’re being left with a greater share of the most difficult-to-teach kids,” says Baraka.

Jeffries has been mum on the topic.

The Bully Pulpit

In a city wary of state-imposed interventions, both candidates anchor their education platforms in demands for local control, followed up with anodyne suggestions like extended school time and extracurriculars. The candidates, both of whom are black, play up their native son status equally.

Their deeper affinities tell a fuller story, though. Baraka advocates the kind of social supports that have been sidelined by recent reforms, like hiring counselors and partnering with community institutions – efforts that invigorated his own Central High School. Inattention to these bread-and-butter issues, Baraka feels, has helped spur charter growth. “Nothing is being done on the traditional side,” he says.

But to Jeffries, Baraka’s outlook puts him in the camp that “would rather stick their head in the sand and pretend that everything is okay.” With that rhetoric, market-based reforms become the only alternative.

Whoever wins won’t be given carte blanche to direct the district. The state controls Newark Public Schools; Christie will retain power. But the bully pulpit can stir popular support, and the new mayor could tilt the district back toward the community – or keep it moving toward virtual privatization.

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