I recently read Cami Anderson’s piece in the Huffington Post entitled “Poverty, Politics, Racism, and School Reform". It made me angry.
On the whole, I believe that she believes what she says. I don’t think she is motivated by greed. Some argue that she is a puppet of Booker or Christie or corporate America or Teach for America (TFA). That her goal is to put public dollars into private hands. That she is working towards the downfall of public education. I don’t think so. I think she believes she is doing the right thing.
In her article, she starts out making a relatively sound case. She acknowledges the factors that have led to the condition of Newark Public Schools, citing racism, housing policies, crime, and poverty.
But her article raised red flags for me when she quickly pivoted to lay the blame solely on Newark, as if she thinks discrimination and inequality are contained in Newark, with no outside forces contributing to these conditions. Throughout the article, she continuously attributes the schools' troubles only to Newark, as if the city exists in a vacuum.
Her behavior here in Newark hints at that line of thinking. Her level of community engagement has been minimal. Since her arrival, there have been reports of her not responding to any questions after informational meetings. More recently, there have been reports of parents locked out of advertised public meetings involving their children's schools. Her “One Newark” promotional video features only charter school advocates, and no community members are included. There isn’t one word from a parent, student, teacher — not even a politician. I've attended a few school board meetings, and she has walked out of every one. It seems that she views the Newark community only as part of the problem, and not the solution.
I will admit that Newark hasn’t given her the warmest welcome, but I can’t imagine she didn’t anticipate that she'd have to work to gain Newarkers' trust. The community has every right to be skeptical. As a state-run district, the governor can choose Newark’s superintendent with no community input, and into that agency-denying framework walked a white, former TFA executive from New York appointed by Republican governor Chris Christie. That is about as “outsider” as it gets here. It's not only reasonable that Newarkers would question her motives and qualifications to run Newark's schools — I think it's commendable.
Contrary to popular opinion, Newarkers care very much about their city and their children. Residents want change, but they were hoping to be included in the process. Instead, they have been left out of the conversation yet again.
Considering she has a history with TFA, I suspect Anderson feels she must “save” these “poor” kids from their “failing” schools and communities. The narrative is that they are trapped in schools where uncaring teachers protected by tenure are taking advantage of a hopeless community.
While I don't downplay Newark's struggles, this narrative feeds into what many critics see as TFA's elitist character. It promotes a dichotomy of good TFA teachers versus bad tenured teachers, and of good charter schools versus bad traditional public schools. Nearly ignoring the effects of poverty and discrimination, promotional materials point to a "culture of low expectations" as the primary difference. Cami Anderson doesn't engage the community because she thinks she knows better than us.
The actual difference is in resources. TFA teachers often overwork themselves to a point that would be unsustainable for someone looking to make teaching a career. By the time they are burned out, their two year commitment is over, and they are replaced by a new recruit. On top of devaluing teaching as a profession, it creates instability for kids already growing up in unstable environments.
I also see a marked difference between charter and public schools, and nowhere is it more evident than in co-located schools. These charter schools have longer school days, better facilities, and additional support teachers in their classrooms. Public school students in the same building are painfully aware of this, because it is rubbed in their faces.
What is often missing in the discussion is why these changes can’t be implemented in public schools. Some say it is due to a lack of money, yet charter schools make these changes in their schools with supposedly less money per pupil. Some say it is due to an uncompromising union, but unionized teachers seem to do just fine in more affluent areas.
Still others say it can’t be done because charter schools cherry-pick their students. I think there's something to that argument. Current research indicates that Newark charter schools educate a significantly lower number of poor students, English language learners, and students with special needs. Similar outcomes are found in charter schools throughout the country. How charter schools would educate these students is an unanswered question, yet charter growth continues as traditional public schools are closed.
Some critics argue that school choice is the new segregation. I think there is some truth to that. The existence of privilege for a chosen few is persistent, and history shows segregation has been one of the most popular ways to distribute it.
But privilege for a few at the expense of many, especially in what is supposed to be a public system, is detrimental. Anderson acknowledges in her article that “society should be judged by how it treats its citizens in greatest need.” By those standards, the “One Newark” plan deserves all the criticism it is receiving. Newark kids deserve more resources, not less. The concerns of their parents should receive more consideration, yet they are ignored.
It is clear that the people of Newark want change. Anderson is wrong if she thinks Newarkers as a whole want to defend the status quo. I would argue that much of the charter school demand is due to the fact that it is the only change being offered. What if all Newark schools were given longer school days, better facilities, and additional support teachers? Are parents really demanding charter schools, or change?
There is growing dissent among TFA alumni as well. More of them recognize that students in communities like Newark need allies, not saviors. More of them understand that being a “top-performing teacher” is not enough; successful schools require resources and community support. They know that parents in every community want what is best for their children. They have partnered with experienced teachers and learned from them, instead of demonizing them. They realize that test scores cannot be the only measure of performance for a school, teacher or student.
Dear Cami Anderson, the community needs to be involved in this process. You have received a 100% vote of no confidence from the school advisory board and the city council. These are elected officials chosen by the citizens of Newark, and they certainly amount to much more than a few hecklers in the crowd. Look at the elections of Bill DeBlasio in New York City and Vincent Gray in Washington, D.C. Look at the strikes in Chicago, Seattle, and Portland. This resistance cannot be attributed to a loud minority.
In your article, you make the case for why your plan can’t wait. I’d like to believe your urgency is sincere. Unfortunately, you are racing to implement a plan that has mixed reviews and results, with little support and no solid evidence of potential for success.
Schools are more than test scores. They are institutions with connections and histories that are vital and dear to the community. To close them against the will of the people without even hearing them out is not only blatantly disrespectful, it is also dishonest, disruptive, and even dangerous. Newark Public School students deserve better.
When the schools are “turned around,” it is with different students and teachers. Improvements are made for the buildings, but what happens to their former inhabitants?
The existing teachers, who are often experienced and have built a rapport with the students and the community, have to look for jobs. The existing students have to look for new schools, while the neediest students are left in the cash-strapped, deteriorating facilities of the traditional public schools.
These displaced students are often forced to travel across town to schools in unfamiliar neighborhoods with different gangs and affiliations. It is already stressful for students to leave the neighborhood they grew up in, their school, their teachers, their friends, and their support system. Imagine them having to do so against their own will, at the behest of forces that don't answer to their parents or their community. Are residents going to celebrate a new school in their neighborhood that their children don’t even attend?
You say you want to bring good schools to needy neighborhoods. How about bringing good education to needy students?
To be sure, I see some good in the “One Newark” plan. Applying to multiple schools with different applications is cumbersome. Having one application could simplify the process and provide parents with all their choices in one place. Furthermore, charter school waiting list numbers are highly inflated, because families who apply to one typically apply to them all. A unified application should lead to more accurate numbers.
But there is so much that is harmful about the plan. You claim you want to give parents a choice, so let them choose the kind of education they want for their children. Let them be represented by a school board with authority to make decisions. If they choose a neighborhood school over a charter school, keep the neighborhood school open instead opening another charter. Doesn’t that make the most sense?