Newark’s School Crisis and the GOP’s War on Our Cities

Richard Eskow

We recently interviewed Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, on “The Zero Hour” on the school crisis currently taking place in Newark, N.J.

The Newark story is part of a larger pattern in which Republican governors override local governments, especially urban ones, to serve both their ideology and their corporate patrons. Today’s Republicans preach local governance, then sacrifice it to their own self-interest. That’s who they are.

Here is an excerpt of the interview.

Gov. Chris Christie’s administration is cutting school funding and turning schools over to charter organizations while his hand-picked superintendent runs roughshod over local school officials, community leaders, and the city’s children.

Christie’s authoritarian and high-handed treatment of Newark’s teachers, students, and families is of a piece with the Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union moves in Wisconsin and Gov. Rick Snyder’s gutting of pension plans in Detroit, Michigan.

Schoolgate

Jeff Bryant looked behind Christie’s “rage at school teachers” and found that the “real ugly truth hiding behind Christie’s bluster is that schools throughout his state, especially in communities of low-income and minority schools, are descending into severely worse conditions.”

A study from the Education Law Center recently found “alarming slippage” in New Jersey’s “fairness” measures for school financing (funding level, funding distribution, state fiscal effort, and public school coverage) during Gov. Christie’s tenure. “In the first and second editions,” says the report, “New Jersey received high marks in all four areas. But the results from 2010 and 2011 show a significant decline in the all-important measure of funding distribution relative to student poverty.”

The Education Law Center report states that “a fair funding system is one that provides a sufficient level of funding distributed to account for the additional needs generated by student poverty, an essential foundation for ensuring all children the opportunity for educational success.”

By falling behind on this essential measure, Christie’s New Jersey is putting the lie to Republican rhetoric about “equality of opportunity.”  These cuts starve Newark’s schools of funding and then allow the Christie crowd to cynically proclaim that they’re “failing.”

As Bryant told me privately: “Newark is just the newest front in the longstanding war to pillage public schools districts for the most marginalized communities in America and turn them over to private entities who devise ever more elaborate ways to enrich themselves at the public’s expense.”

Anatomy of a Takeover

Newark’s school challenge dates back to 1995, when its troubled school system was brought under state control so that it could be stabilized. Requirements were established which determined when the school system could be brought back under local control. But despite the fact that it has met those requirements twice, in 2011 in 2013, Christie has refused to return governance back to the city and has instead change the goals that the school system must reach.

Nevertheless, both Gov. Christie and the teachers union won wide praise in 2012 for agreeing on an innovative and flexible contract which, among other things, allows the city to make use of a $100 million grant from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Now Christie’s hand-picked superintendent, Cami Anderson, seems to be unilaterally voiding that agreement.

Christie accepted the accolades that came with that pact, presenting himself as “a different kind of Republican.” But once the flashbulbs faded he behaved like all the rest of them.

State of Siege

Anderson also ended two popular programs. Global Village provided neighborhood children with a variety of wraparound services (that have proved to improve educational outcomes considerably), while the Newcomer program provided services for students who were not native speakers of English.

Ironies abound in this story: Many of the schools Anderson has closed or turned over to charters have performed quite well on objective measurements, while the Newcomer program was based on national best practices. The conservatives who preach objective measurements for education – even at the expense of important qualitative criteria – are only too happy to ignore these criteria when they challenge their ideological biases or the self-interest of their corporate allies.

Anderson is planning to fire experienced teachers and replace them with untrained volunteers from the Teach for America program. Although the Facebook grant was intended to help fund experienced teachers, it would appear that Anderson and Christie think amateurs are good enough for the children of Newark.

Anderson’s also proposing something she calls the “One Newark” program, and it looks like a massive giveaway to private for-profit charter schools. Some schools would be privatized, some would be “redesigned,” and others would be closed – all without local governance, democratic accountability, or even the veneer of citizen input.

After a fractious meeting, Anderson announced that she would no longer meet with the Newark school system’s elected advisory board, even though that is presumably part of the superintendent’s job description. Her peremptory dismissal of these elected representatives has been accompanied by suspensions or reassignments of school principals who disagree with her proposals.

The Republican War on Urban Government

It’s not just that Anderson is a poor leader, although she clearly is that. Leadership skills include the ability to communicate with people with whom you disagree, finding common ground where it’s possible and disagreeing civilly where it’s not. But Newark’s problems involve more than just bad management. The Christie power grab part of a nationwide trend among Republican governors to seize a level of executive authority that their offices were never intended to possess. That’s why we have called Christie both “the real face of the Republican Party” and its “heartless, smug, bullying embodiment.”

Events in Newark seem to closely follow the pro-corporate, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) agenda which Republicans are in acting in governors’ mansions and statehouses across the country. That’s the key struggle going on in Newark. It’s a battle, not only for Newark’s schools, but for the right of urban self-governance. It’s a battle, not only for that city’s children and their families, but for a principle of educational opportunity which is being sacrificed for the corporate agenda.

As in Michigan and Wisconsin, a city and its people are being disregarded by the minions of an authoritarian Republican governor who’d rather score points with special interests than respect local elections or help urban families.

These aren’t necessarily Randi Weingarten’s opinions, of course. She offers her own take on the Newark situation in the interview and in an open letter to Gov. Christie. (Diane Ravitch published the letter on her blog.) She would presumably prefer to see Gov. Christie honor the contract he signed. He should. But, sadly, his betrayal seems to be part of a larger pattern.

In addition to the self-serving greed which motivates them, there is also an element of something we’ve called “ritual sacrifice” (see “The Looting of Detroit”), and a deliberate demonization of certain portions of the population (as in, “We Have Met the Enemy and She is Old.”) In this case the message seems clear: Children, like retired people, have few inherent rights under the social contract. Local elections can be dismissed, especially in urban areas. And the collective resources of the taxpayer are ripe for the corporate taking.

There is a battle underway for the heart and soul of America’s cities. And Newark, like Detroit, is on “the front line.”

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