Moment of truth for Newark school reform: Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
on March 01, 2014

Donna Jackson, a community activists, offers gentle criticism of Superintendent Cami Anderson at a Newark School Advisory Board meeting.


The political meltdown in Newark over school reform has reached an alarming stage and now threatens to derail the entire effort.

Superintendent Cami Anderson last week announced she would boycott the local school board until its president restores some semblance of order at the raucous public meetings.

That won’t help, but it’s understandable. These meeting have degraded into pointless shouting matches. It is an outrage that board President Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson allows it to go on.

But the hard truth is that Anderson has been unable to build a local coalition to support her reforms. She is not gifted in the art of political persuasion, and the rapid pace of change has provoked the status quo.

Given state control of the district, Anderson has the authority to impose reforms on her own. But in the long run, her program is not sustainable without local support. A Democratic governor would almost surely return control to Newark, and the front-runner in the race for mayor, Councilman Ras Baraka, is hostile to Anderson’s reforms across the board.

Even Gov. Chris Christie may want to tap the brakes if the political heat continues to rise. Among those who have turned against Anderson is Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), an ally of the governor’s on school reform and the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

So it is crunch time. And the job of turning the political tide cannot be left to Anderson alone. It is time for civic and religious leaders to engage more actively, and to insist on a civil public discussion. If the school board can’t provide for that, then the discussion should move to the city’s churches and public auditoriums.

This moment is too important to allow a rowdy gaggle to derail the conversation.

* * *

To get an idea of what Anderson is up against, consider the pending teacher layoffs. She has to shrink her teaching staff by 30 percent over the next three years, thanks to the shrinking population of district schools.

State law provides that she cannot lay off any senior teachers, no matter how ineffective they are. She must fire the least senior teachers, even if they are gifted.

To anyone who believes children, not adults, should be the top priority in the schools, this is obscene. It would force Anderson to fire hundreds of good teachers who could have lasting impact on students.

Anderson is applying for a waiver. That is a legal stretch and will surely land in court. But the education commissioner may have the authority based on his regulatory discretion, or the powers granted to him under the state Supreme Court’s Abbott rulings.

Ask yourself this: Would Newark be better off if Anderson didn’t make such a fuss? The easy path would be to follow the rules, no matter how wrong-headed. She is instead facing the wrath of the union and its allies with a bold and sensible move.

Another example: Her policies toward charter schools have provoked enormous opposition, all undeserved. Some object to her renting space in district schools to charters, even though there is ample vacant space. But these students are Newark’s children, too, and Anderson rightly feels they are her charges. And charters get no money for capital costs.

She has also found an elegant answer to the chief criticism of charter schools — that they don’t take their fair share of children who are poor, can’t speak English or have special needs. Under the “One Newark” plan, all families will choose a school from a menu of options, charter and conventional. She will then match students to schools, with a thumb on the scale to ensure that charters take their share of tough cases.

So it is time for a gut-check in Newark. If Anderson is going to win this fight, she needs help. And if she loses, the city may not see vigorous reforms for many years to come.

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