I am a parent and a life long resident of Newark. I am not an elected leader, but my mom was an educator and activist in this city I love. I am a product of Newark’s education system and my children are now split between a public magnet high school and an elementary charter school.
This week an important Forum took place at NJPAC and sponsored by WNYC, entitled, “Bonanza or Burden? Facebook’s Gift to Newark Schools.” The evening included Mayor Ras Baraka, Superintendent Chris Cerf, KIPP New Jersey’s Joanna Belcher, and Dale Russakoff, author of the recently released book “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools.”
I had hoped that the forum would be an important dialogue on the future of Newark’s education system. Unfortunately, it was just the same political spectacle we have seen in our city for the last few years. As a result, I left the beautiful NJPAC theater overcome with emotion and greatly saddened by how the political dramas of adults is crippling the future of Newark children.
It did not escape me that this Forum took place the same week many of us watched Pope Francis’ travel for the first time to the United States.
Specifically, when Pope Francis addressed our country he pleaded for all of us to “work together for the common good.” He reminded Congress of their responsibility to defend and preserve the dignity of their fellow citizens. This true representative, regardless of race or religion, of the Most High God, verbalized with such grace and dignity and without fear or hesitation, directly to Congress, these specific actions should be “the chief aim of all politics.” “Legislative activity is always based on care for the people,” the Pontiff continued. “To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”
More important, Pope Francis frankly discussed the polarization that has paralyzed our government and urged us all to break the cycle and heal the “open wounds.” Defining the cause of this destruction by using words like greed, poverty and hatred, the Pope stated, “Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well being of individuals and of peoples.”
Strangely, no one seemed to hear the Pope’s words at the Newark education event. In fact, it seemed people did not actually read Ms. Russakoff’s book, “The Prize” outlining the perils of Newark education dating back to the 1950s. No one seemed truly interested in Ms. Russakoff’s data and fact based driven information, nor was there a desire to gain a historic perspective regarding Newark. Unfortunately, all I heard was more politically driven blame and the desire to scapegoat others.
What I learned reading Ms. Russakoff’s book, is that the demise we have all witnessed, predates even my existence.
According to Ms. Russakoff, the catalyst to Newark’s education problems has been Newark’s billion-dollar school budget, and specifically how Newark politicians have used that money to payback political favors, as opposed to getting that money to our classrooms and our children were failing from top to bottom and at genocidal levels. There is a history of corruption and the creation of unneeded bureaucracies.
I had hoped for an authentic intellectual conversation at the Forum, showcasing this important point. Instead, we were told the reason all is bad in Newark education is because charter schools are draining the budget. Yet, long before the Zuckerberg gift, long before the State took over our district and long before charters, Newark was failing our children.
Prior to the alleged “infiltration of the outsiders,” the numbers sound like this: in twenty-three of its seventy-five schools, fewer than 30 percent of children from the third through eighth grade were reading at grade level; the high school graduation rate was 54 percent; and more than 90 percent of graduates who attended the local community college required remedial classes; and only 12.5 percent of Newark adults were college graduates.
These are the facts we need to think about when discussing the future of our school system. Charter schools are not the only solution to our problems, nor are they to blame. But if we are going to have a real conversation about our future, it is time we all understand the facts that actually got us here. We need to base Newark’s future on facts – not political ideology and scapegoats.
On the same week of Newark’s education Forum, Pope Francis tried to warn the political leadership in this country that their responsibility is to assist the poor and disenfranchised. The Forum Newark witnessed was the polar opposite of Pope Francis’ aspirations and we should be ashamed. There are many reasons why Newark’s education system is a mess. Simply scapegoating charters, which are just as much public schools as district schools, is not only inaccurate – it is a political tactic to smokescreen the real issues behind the problems.
Our education issues have nothing to do with outsiders, the problem rests with those of us in Newark. As Ms. Russakoff mentions, I want to know what happened to the billions of dollars from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and where that money went, when an entire city was receiving a substandard education.
Upon reflection, I now understand the emotion I felt leaving the panel - it was a deep feeling to do right by my children.
It was the desire to act now.
I am no longer afraid to stand up and speak out when others create unethical arguments in order to place blame where it does not belong or scream out how great my daughter is doing at Thrive Academy via KIPP NJ. As a parent frankly, I am thankful the money coming in to Thrive is actually reaching my baby, rather than paying a political debt.
It is time we all stand together and make the issue of education about facts - not ideology.