A New Start for Newark Schools

Op-Ed

The New York Times

October 20, 2014

NEWARK — IN 1995, the New Jersey State Department of Education took control of Newark’s schools, disbanding the local board and appointing its own superintendent. I had just then become a teacher in Newark.

The express intent of the takeover was to intervene temporarily to improve the quality of our schools, increase the achievement of students and better manage the system’s finances. Since the state was on the receiving end of a 1994 State Supreme Court ruling that the underfunding of public schools in urban districts was unconstitutional, the timing seemed suspicious, to say the least. It felt as if we were being annexed.

Nearly 20 years later, it is clear that the state has failed on all counts. Local control must be returned to Newark’s public schools immediately.

Over the years, the court-ordered remedies for Newark’s schools were eroded or ignored. A $6 billion schools construction program never materialized. Instead, thanks to state control, Newark has become a laboratory for experiments in top-down reforms.

Successive state-mandated initiatives came and went. Occasionally, there were useful ideas that yielded results — for example, in lower grades when resources were focused on early childhood learning. But when there was no dramatic breakthrough, programs were withdrawn, and some new plan hatched. Over time, the cycle hurt teachers’ morale and bred cynicism among parents.

During state control of Newark’s schools, a lack of consultation and consent has been a persistent problem. Reports show at least one neighborhood school was shut down and the real estate sold off; others were changed to charter schools without a vote — a clear violation of state charter laws.

You might think that Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation in 2010 to kick-start a foundation for Newark schools would have been a game changer. But little funding went directly to Newark’s schools. Instead, the first $1.3 million was wasted on a poorly conducted community outreach campaign. Then another $100 million, including funds from Zuckerberg, went to a program for teacher merit pay.

Principals were given the power to re-interview teachers for their jobs and in some cases hire new teachers. But the rejected teachers joined a pool of floating staff members in the “rubber room” downtown, until reassigned to other schools or bought out. So even as Newark teachers worked without a contract, the state went on a hiring and cash-incentive spree.

There was not enough accountability or transparency about the spending. We only know this much thanks to demands filed by community groups under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act.

The state’s maladministration of Newark’s public schools continues to this day. When Superintendent Cami Anderson’s “Renew Schools” reform plan ran into difficulties because of its lack of public consultation, foundation dollars went to a community-engagement program. Yet the latest iteration, the “One Newark” plan, has only plunged the system into more chaos.

Consider the reports I’ve received of Barringer High School (formerly Newark High School). Three weeks into the school year, students still did not have schedules. Students who had just arrived in this country and did not speak English sat for days in the school library without placement or instruction. Seniors were placed in classes they had already taken, missing the requirements they’d need to graduate. Even the school lunch system broke down, with students served bread and cheese in lieu of hot meals.

Things are no better for parents. Under One Newark’s universal enrollment scheme, a secret algorithm determined what school was the “best fit” for each child. Often, this ended up placing each child in a family in a different school, none of which was the neighborhood school the parents chose. The superintendent even had to devise a new busing program service for the unpopular One Newark plan.

To cap it all, last year the school system operated with a deficit of $57 million.

Gov. Chris Christie likes to say that he is “the decider” of what happens in Newark’s public schools. What that means is that he and his appointees now own the failure of the state’s policies. Advocates of both traditional and charter schools, parent groups, ministers, student organizations and local elected officials have called on New Jersey to relinquish its hold over our schools.

The real issues that reform should address are ensuring that every 3- or 4-year-old child is enrolled in a structured learning environment, and that all our teachers get staff development and training. We must be more effective at sharing best practices and keeping our class sizes manageable. If necessary, we should put more than one teacher in the classroom, especially for students from kindergarten to third grade.

We also need to fix additional problems like a historically segregated curriculum, which offers stimulating choices in wealthy suburbs but only the most basic courses to our inner-city children. And we must break the cycle of low expectations that some educators have of the children they teach, merely prescribing repeat classes if students don’t pass.

The first step in a transition to local control of Newark’s schools is a short-term transfer of authority to the mayor. I would quickly appoint a new superintendent. Once basic functions were restored to the district, we would move as soon as possible to return control to an elected school board with full powers.

It is clear that we cannot rely on the good faith of the state to respond expeditiously. Federal intervention appears our only recourse. I have written to the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights in support of the lawsuits that parents, students, advocates and educators in our city have brought, requesting that the federal government intercede. The right of Newark’s citizens to equitable, high-quality public education demands the return of local, democratic control.

Ras J. Baraka, a former high school principal, is the mayor of Newark.

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commented 2014-10-21 19:22:28 -0700
Whether or not we agree with the mayor I think that trying to return the decision making back to the people of newark