One would expect that five years after the announcement of a $100 million donation by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched school reform in Newark's public schools onto the national stage, educators, news cameras, and researchers would be coming from all corners of the country to understand how that significant donation is helping turnaround the district. This is not the case.
Newark's public school system currently faces a fiscal crisis that unquestionably harms its ability to provide high-quality education to the 35,000 students with whose hearts and minds the district is entrusted daily. We continue to talk about closing achievement gaps and improving schools in a high poverty city where some schools have poverty rates above 90 percent.
Yet, the very resources needed to deliver a basic level of education, to provide textbooks, copy paper and professional development, are in jeopardy. While offering no relief for district schools, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's latest budget gives an additional $25 million from Newark's public schools to charter schools.
Dale Russakoff’s recently released book, “The Prize,” reveals how the iron triangle formed between then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Christie and his then-state-appointed Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson organized a complex web of ideologies, social policies, institutional practices and private resources to advance a shortsighted view of educational and social equity.
A market-driven public education agenda has been passed off as school reform that is in the interest of the black and brown children often living in poverty and educated in Newark's public schools.
Politically well-connected wealthy people have used their power and resources to impose educational policies on our community, our schools and our children.
Individual interests have been manipulated to diminish collective power.
To ignore the role that power and capital continue to play in the structure, organization, and mobilization of the systems that impact the daily realities of communities of color is to tacitly support the maintenance of race and class privilege. "The Prize" drives this home regarding the present situation in Newark.
The result is a school district that, despite the quiet appearances of the moment and efforts to regain toward local control of the Newark school system which was placed under state control in 1995, is crumbling from a structural deficit and continued low performance that begs the question - local control of what?
The $42 million surplus that existed four years ago is gone. An employee without placement pool created by Anderson has cost the district tens of million dollars annually. The use of “creative budgeting” strategies has consistently undervalued the real costs of positions and vacancies to create annual budgets that are more fiction than fact and that at the end of each year have left the district in a fiscal crisis that is more by design than the result of declining enrollment and families voting with their feet out of Newark.
The current financial situation facing our district and schools is not a normal budget gap. It is a gaping hole caused by decisions made under the watch and protection of those responsible for improving the conditions of our schools.
It is time to focus singularly on the recovery of the Newark school district, the largest in New Jersey. Now is the time for everyone on all sides of the education policy debate to agree to a moratorium on charter expansion in order to give the public school district the opportunity to rebuild its budget and plan for a sustainable future.
We must also collectively call on the recently-appointed Newark Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf, installed by Christie after Anderson's abrupt departure earlier this year, to request emergency funds from the state.
The Newark community has consistently reminded us that the answers are ours to find and deliver together. The district cannot continue to press forward with policy after policy, initiative after initiative, reform after reform, without holding the mirror up to the face of the decisions made and looking at all of the consequences, intended and unintended, of these changes.
The Zuckerberg announcement and the flow of dollars following symbolized an alliance between Christie, Booker, Anderson and private philanthropy that solidified a top-down, market-driven and choice-based education reform agenda for the state-controlled Newark school district.
Yes, there has been a significant mobilization of supporters in favor of school reform that increases choice, expands charters and privatizes aspects of public education in Newark. There is also - and will likely always be - a consistent presence of voices calling for the community to be involved in defining what school reform should look like, without eroding the role of democracy, in governing public schools.
However, even if only behind closed doors, opposition to the consequences of education reform has challenged and questioned the reforms from all sides, including choice advocates funders, elected officials, teachers, parents and school leaders alike. It simply is no longer an “us versus them” conversation, nor can it be.
With all of our talk about how poverty and race impact student achievement and how widespread these impacts really are, we cannot allow our district schools to face a future of squalor. We have agreed publicly that most of Newark's children will be educated in district schools.
We have also agreed that many of these students will be those that are the most vulnerable and have the most challenges. We must now agree that we all have a stake in stabilizing the district and ensuring that it has a viable infrastructure to educate every child in a district school.
Lauren Wells, Ph.D. is the chief education officer for the administration of Newark City Mayor Ras Baraka.