A Tale of Two Districts

By Stan Karp

The Newark Student Union has led opposition to N.J. State Superintendent Cami Anderson.
Photo courtesy Paul Karr

For several years, I’ve been tracking the path of corporate school reform in two very different communities as it moves from city to suburb in my home state of New Jersey. One story comes from Newark, New Jersey’s largest city and the target of a nationally watched campaign to remake a high-poverty, high-needs urban district into a new education marketplace, transformed by charter chains, “venture philanthropy,” and various forms of “school choice” that treat parents as customers seeking services instead of citizens with rights. The other story is about my hometown, Montclair, a diverse community that has been long known as a model of high quality, integrated public education. Montclair, too, has been the target of a reform offensive, much less destabilizing than the one under way in Newark, but strikingly similar in many respects.

Despite sharp differences in history and demographics, the experience of these two communities reflects the overarching goals and overlapping sponsors of corporate education reform. It also suggests that if public education is going to survive, its supporters will need to make common cause across the divides of race and class, city and suburb.

“Corporate education reform” is used here as shorthand for a set of proposals driving education policy at the state and federal level. These include:

  • Increased test-based evaluation of students, teachers, and schools of education.
  • Elimination or weakening of tenure and seniority rights.
  • An end to pay for experience or advanced degrees.
  • The privatization of school services, including reduced pay and benefits for the aides, custodians, and cafeteria workers who often form an important layer of community-based staff in schools.
  • Closing public schools and replacing them with privately run charters.
  • Replacing elected local school boards with various forms of mayoral or state takeover.
  • Vouchers and tax credit subsidies for private school tuition.
  • Implementation of a new generation of computer-based exams tied to the Common Core standards.

Typically, low-income districts like Newark, with majority populations of color, including many families who have been poorly served by the current system, have been the entry point for these policies. The rhetoric of civil rights and equity, once invoked to challenge segregation and institutional racism, is now being used to justify the radical dismantling of these districts.

Newark reached a turning point on this path in the fall of 2010, a high-water mark for the corporate reform movement: The pro-charter propaganda film Waiting for “Superman” had just been released and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was calling it a “Rosa Parks moment.” Oprah Winfrey ran a week of back-to-school specials highlighted by the appearance of Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who appeared with then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey’s newly elected Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie won election by campaigning against teacher unions, calling pre-K programs “babysitting,” and denouncing court-ordered funding levels for New Jersey’s urban districts as “obscene.” “We have to grab this system by the roots and yank it out and start over,” he said. Booker and Christie formed the kind of bipartisan political alliance that has been a defining characteristic of corporate ed reform. As reported by Dale Russakoff in the New Yorker: “Booker presented Christie with a confidential proposal titled ‘Newark Public Schools: A Reform Plan.’ . . . One of the goals was to ‘make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.'”

Christie agreed and Booker began pitching the plan to potential donors, including Zuckerberg.

So, as schools opened in September 2010, folks in Newark heard Zuckerberg, who had never set foot in the city, announce from a TV studio in Chicago that he was donating $100 million to support what Oprah described as a takeover of Newark Public Schools (NPS) by the “rock star mayor.” Community activists began referring to it as the second takeover.

Takeover of a Takeover

Newark schools have been under state control since 1995. Originally, the takeover law was supposed to build capacity for effective local school governance where the state determined it was lacking; corruption and mismanagement in Newark had provided lots of evidence. The first phase of the takeover also overlapped with a series of court-ordered mandates growing out of a funding equity case called Abbott—mandates that brought well-funded, research-based efforts to improve New Jersey’s urban public schools with credible reforms, including universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, a focus on early literacy, and expanded social service supports.

Under the Abbott reforms, many Newark schools made significant progress. Test score gaps narrowed, graduation rates rose. And, unlike today, the Abbott reforms were undeniably focused on improving the district, not dismantling it.

But under Booker, Christie, and the governor’s high-powered education commissioner, Chris Cerf, the takeover law has been used to turn some of the state’s largest districts into hothouses for corporate reform.

Cerf was the former head of Edison Inc., once the nation’s largest private education management firm. A registered Democrat who served in the Clinton administration, Cerf was a pioneer in opening up the $700 billion/year K-12 education market to commercial penetration. He was deputy chancellor under New York City’s Joel Klein and a senior advisor to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; all three are charter members of the corporate ed reform club. In public, Cerf regularly dismissed talk about “corporate ed reform” as conspiratorial nonsense. In private, however, he described school reform politics as “a knife fight in a dark room” and embraced a brand of what corporate reformers proudly call “disruptive innovation” that made him a perfect choice to be Christie’s education commissioner.

One of Cerf’s first tasks was to recruit a new state-appointed superintendent for NPS. He chose Cami Anderson, a former Teach For America (TFA) executive who had also worked at New Leaders for New Schools, a kind of TFA for principals founded by Jon Schnur. Schnur later joined the Obama administration, where he was a primary architect of the Race to the Top. He also helped promote Arne Duncan as secretary of education over Linda Darling Hammond, the well-known academic who began her career as a public school teacher in Camden, New Jersey.

“Charter Capital of the Nation”

Anderson arrived in spring 2011 as the agent of Booker’s plan to make Newark “the charter capital of the nation.” When she started, about 12 percent of Newark students were enrolled in charters. Today it’s about 25 percent and, under her “One Newark” plan, will rise to 40 percent by 2016. More than $200 million annually is being transferred from the NPS budget to the growing charter sector. Her budgets have led to layoffs for more than 200 attendance counselors, clerical workers, and janitors, most of them Newark residents. “We’re raising the poverty level in Newark in the name of school reform,” she confessed to a group of funders.

Concentrated poverty and segregation are central facts of life in Newark. The city is in Essex county, which a study called “the most intensely segregated of New Jersey’s 21 counties. . . . Coexisting in a single, compact county are a dozen virtually all white and Asian suburban districts with tiny poverty levels, and four urban districts with virtually no white or Asian students and staggeringly high poverty levels.” Newark’s child poverty rate is 44 percent.

Courts and legislatures have made racially integrating U.S. schools much harder in recent decades, and the growth of charters has magnified the impact. On top of the intense racial segregation that characterizes all Newark schools, the charters serve fewer of the English learners, special education students, and poorest students, who remain in district schools in ever-higher concentrations. Of the 14,000 students in schools serving the highest-need populations, 93 percent are in district schools and just 7 percent are in charters.

Some of Newark’s highest profile charters are “no excuses” schools with authoritarian cultures and appalling attrition rates. Newark’s KIPP schools lose nearly 60 percent of African American boys between 5th and 12th grades, and Uncommon Schools lose about 75 percent. There are some Newark charters that provide high quality education for a fortunate few, but the overall impact on the district has been polarizing and inequitable, and has accelerated the district’s decline.

For many architects of corporate reform, that’s exactly the point. As Andy Smarick, a former deputy commissioner in Christie’s DOE now with the corporate think tank Bellwether, wrote: “The solution isn’t an improved traditional district; it’s an entirely different delivery system for public education: systems of chartered schools.”

“Where’d the Money Go?”

The widespread perception that NPS has been systematically hollowed out to make way for charter expansion has fed deep hostility to Anderson’s administration. As she entered the final year of her contract in September 2013, calls for her resignation grew. The elected, though mostly powerless, school advisory board unanimously rejected her budgets and urged her removal. Angry audiences chanted: “Where’d the money go? Where’d the money go?”

The governor’s response was classic Christie: “I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.”

At about this time, Anderson began working with the Parthenon Corporation, one of those shadowy consulting firms that make a fortune designing public policy behind closed doors. One project was a universal enrollment plan that would combine district and charter enrollment processes and effectively turn the district into a recruiter for charter expansion.

According to a complaint filed on behalf of Newark parents with the U.S. Department of Education, “One Newark” will raise the number of neighborhood schools closed to 26. These closures disproportionately affect African American students, who make up about half the district but more than 70 percent of those affected by the closures. White students are 8 percent of the district, but only 26 [white] students were directly affected by One Newark. The plan also calls for laying off 1,000 teachers in the next three years.

The One Newark plan sparked new rounds of opposition, organizing, and reaction:

  • Five principals who spoke out against the plan were summarily suspended. The parent president of the Ivy Hill PTO was banned from the school his two children attended.
  • Two detailed complaints were filed with the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Two nationally known education researchers, Bruce Baker and Mark Weber, produced well-documented briefs showing how the plan targeted schools serving high needs students, including some performing better than schools that remained untouched. For example, Hawthorne Avenue School was slated for closure even though it had some of the best test scores in the district. After their principal was suspended, Hawthorne parents refused to participate in the enrollment process, which left Hawthorne off the list of choices. Instead, they collected letters from hundreds of parents demanding to continue at the school. After a yearlong struggle, they defeated plans to turn Hawthorne into a “charter launch,” and it remains open today.
  • A newly formed Newark Student Union announced its presence at a town hall forum held in the city’s glittering performance arts center. Frustrated with a panel discussion dominated by Booker and Anderson, the students began chanting from the audience: “Newark students stand up, fight back!” They read, mic-check style, from a leaflet they had been distributing: “STOP the budget cuts. STOP the privatization of PUBLIC education. STOP attacking our teachers. STOP attacking their unions, their tenure, and their jobs. STOP closing OUR schools. STOP funding charter over public. STOP your educational reform and listen to the public.” The NSU has mobilized hundreds of students in a sustained campaign against Anderson and the takeover.
  • Seventy-seven ministers signed a letter blasting the One Newark plan as “disruptive and divisive” and calling for its suspension.
  • Local parents, with support from national projects like Journey 4 Justice and the AFT’s “Reclaim the Promise” campaign, produced a comprehensive alternative plan, Envisioning the Future of Newark Public Schools: Excellent Neighborhood Public Schools for All.
  • Inside the Newark Teachers Union, a progressive caucus emerged that won a majority of seats on the union executive board.
  • Protest at school board meetings grew so heated that Anderson stopped attending them.

Newark Elects a New Mayor

In the middle of this citywide struggle, Newark held a mayoral election. One candidate, Ras Baraka, was the son of the famous poet and radical activist Amiri Baraka. As both a city councilman and a high school principal, Ras Baraka had been a vocal opponent of Booker and Anderson for years. He ran on a promise to “take Newark back” from political bosses, Wall Street investors, and Gov. Christie. His opponent, Shavar Jeffries, had a compelling personal story, pro-charter politics, and a campaign cache of millions of dollars in hedge fund money.

Baraka won a decisive 54 to 46 victory last May. Anderson’s days seemed numbered—her contract ran out in June—and One Newark seemed headed for the scrapheap.

But then Newark’s citizens got another lesson in U.S. political and racial reality. In a move impossible to imagine in a community with a majority white population, Christie gave Anderson a new contract. He later bragged that Baraka “came to speak to me about the education system in Newark. And I said, ‘I’ll listen to whatever you have to say but the state runs the school system, I am the decider, and you have nothing to do with it.'”

So the community was forced to regroup again. And it did, with a back-to-school parent boycott in September and a new round of protests. The new mayor, who is not getting any help from Winfrey or Zuckerberg, has taken Newark’s struggle national. Last October, Baraka wrote to Obama “to request presidential intervention in the disruptive and illegal educational reforms being implemented in the Newark Public School district.” So far, no response.

The resistance remains strong, but the balance sheet is grim: the massive transfer of resources from public to private hands, dismantling of the district toward a tipping point, redirection of state intervention from support to disruption, sharp polarization of charter vs. public school parents, erosion of local democratic governance, declining support and services for students and families.

If this sounds a lot like New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other cities, it’s because it is. To be sure, some key parts of the corporate reform project, like the Common Core standards and tests, seem to be floundering. But, as Newark shows, other parts of the agenda show no signs of slowing down, especially efforts to disenfranchise communities of color and promote privatization.

Education Deform in the ‘Burbs

If cities like Newark are the entry point for corporate reform, wealthier suburban districts are the next prize.

At first glance, Montclair is an unlikely target for a crusade whose calling card has been a sky-is-falling narrative of failure. Montclair is a racially diverse community of 38,000 (about 60 percent white, 30 percent African American, 10 percent Latina/o and Asian). The town’s 6,700 students (about 20 percent eligible for free/reduced lunch) attend seven K-5 schools and three 6-8 middle schools, each with a curriculum theme, in a districtwide magnet system. Montclair High School has ongoing tracking and equity issues, but typically sends more than 90 percent of its graduates to college.

It took years of community struggle and legal battles to win a court-ordered desegregation plan, but since then the community has generally supported its schools with high levels of parent involvement, high property taxes, and efforts to address gaps in opportunity. The magnet system was sustained by investments in transportation, curriculum development, and full-day, free pre-K programs at every elementary school. A writers room program provided one-on-one support for student assignments. Warts and all—and there have always been many—Montclair schools reflected a democratic vision of what public education aspired to be.

For a while, federal and state policy supported this vision. In the early ’80s, more than 20 percent of the town’s school budget came from federal and state sources. Today, the state and federal share has dropped to about 8 percent. The writers rooms are gone and the pre-K program is a fee-based shadow of its former self. Montclair’s classroom aides—many of whom have deep community ties and who are seen as “first responders” to the needs of children—have had their benefits and job security eroded. Full-time aides with health coverage have been replaced by per diem employees with starting salaries that are less than the superintendent’s annual merit pay bonus.

Montclair has a degree of class and racial diversity rare for New Jersey’s 600 highly segregated school districts. It is also home to a striking number of high-profile corporate education reformers. Chris Cerf lives here. National political reporter Jonathan Alter, a longtime cheerleader for KIPP schools, does too. (Alter was the talking head in Waiting for “Superman” who said: “Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.”) The town is also home to officials of Uncommon Schools, the Achievement First Network, Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies, and KIPP. As one parent activist explained: “Many of our neighbors in Montclair have been influential in determining the course of national policy in education. That fact alone adds a different tone and dimension to the rhetoric in Montclair. Let’s just say that it makes for awkward glances at the supermarket.”

Takeover Without a Takeover

One problematic aspect of the Montclair desegregation plan from the ’70s is the appointed school board, chosen by the mayor instead of elected by town residents. The original intent was to insulate the board from electoral politics and avoid annual referenda on the desegregation plan, and for years the appointed board helped sustain Montclair’s magnet system. But, as the policy context for education reform has changed, the appointed board has become increasingly contentious.

It was against this backdrop that, in the summer of 2012, as Cami Anderson was hollowing out Newark, Montclair hired a new superintendent. Penny MacCormack was new to the state, had never been a superintendent, and wasn’t known to many in Montclair. But those who track state education politics knew she had been a district official in Connecticut who was recruited by Cerf to be an assistant commissioner in Christie’s DOE. The department had received several grants from the Eli Broad Foundation and was staffed with multiple Broad “fellows.” MacCormack, Cerf, and Anderson all have Broad ties.

MacCormack was at the N.J. Department of Education for less than a year when she suddenly resurfaced as the new Montclair superintendent without any public vetting, a clear sign the board knew this was a controversial hire.

Her welcome reception began with a video about the origins of the magnet system in the struggle to integrate the town’s schools. Some honored town elders who had played key roles were in the audience. MacCormack awkwardly attempted to connect her vision to the compelling town history framed in the video. Despite the town’s commitment to equity, she said, wide “achievement gaps” remained, and addressing those gaps would be her No. 1 priority.

MacCormack didn’t pledge to restore the equity supports that had been eroded in recent years or challenge Christie’s budget cuts. Instead, she announced that the Common Core standards and tests, and the state’s new teacher evaluation mandates, would “level the playing field” and “raise expectations for all.” “And,” she said, “I will be using the data to hold educators accountable and make sure we get results.”

After she finished, a latecomer took the floor and told the audience how lucky Montclair was to have MacCormack come to town. It was Jon Schnur, the architect of the Race to the Top. He also lives in Montclair. We later learned that Schnur was MacCormack’s “mentor” in a certification program she enrolled in after being hired without the required credentials to be superintendent.

In Montclair, there was no formal state takeover and no contested school board elections. Instead, the long reach of corporate education reform had used influence peddling, backdoor connections, and a compliant appointed school board to install one of their own at the head of one of the state’s model districts.

Vanity Testing

Over the next few months, MacCormack’s plans took shape, drawing on a familiar playbook. There was major shuffling at central office; experienced staff were replaced by well-paid imports. Half the district’s principals were moved or replaced.

The new superintendent created a multiyear strategic plan: a 20-page list of bulleted goals, strategies, and benchmarks. One stood out. MacCormack wanted to implement “districtwide Common Core-aligned quarterly assessments in reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, and science” from kindergarten through 12th grade.” The proposal quickly became a dividing line.

Like the rest of the country, Montclair had felt the impact of increased testing. New Jersey used to test students once each in elementary, middle, and high school. But since 2002, NCLB mandated annual testing for every student in every grade from 3 to 8 and again in high school. State testing mandates increased again when New Jersey adopted the Common Core standards and tests. MacCormack’s “benchmark assessments” were an additional layer designed to produce data for her strategic plan.

The town pushed back. Some parents formed a group called Montclair Cares About Schools (MCAS) and posted an online petition asking the board to defer the quarterly tests. Five hundred parents signed in a few weeks. A similar petition initiated by students drew another 500 names. Dozens of speakers lined up at board meetings to urge the board to slow down and change direction. But, as the school year ended, the board that hired MacCormack unanimously endorsed her plan.

When schools opened in September, neither the tests nor the new curriculum they were supposed to assess were ready. Teachers were scrambling to make sense of a complicated new teacher evaluation rubric. Confusion reigned about how this rubric would combine with student test scores to produce numerical ratings for staff, with high-stakes consequences for tenure and salaries. Again, parents and teachers pleaded with the board to delay the new tests, to no avail.

A few days before the first quarterlies were to be given, things went completely off the rails. Emails began circulating that some of the tests had been found on an internet scavenger site, GoBookie, which robotically scoops up and sells documents without authorization.

The news traveled quickly. The board called an emergency meeting to initiate an investigation, not just into the source of the released tests, but also into “other incidents of conduct that may be contrary to the board’s best interest.”

The board began issuing subpoenas. It sought one board member’s private emails and phone records, and warned teachers not “to destroy any emails or documents related to the investigation.” It even went after anonymous critics on local social media sites, issuing subpoenas for their internet addresses so the critics could be questioned.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey stepped in and told the board their subpoenas were a gross violation of free speech rights. Still, the board pressed its investigation through months of turmoil and mounting legal fees. Finally, a state agency quietly confirmed that the tests had been posted online in error. The furor was fueled by a mistake, not an act of sabotage.

The episode dealt a serious blow to the board’s credibility. It also reflected the distorted priorities of corporate reform. As LynNell Hancock, journalism professor and grandmother of a 5th grader, wrote on Valerie Strauss’ education blog: “This is a Montclair I hardly recognize. It’s not the children, the quality of the schools or the town’s democratic values that have changed. It’s a paradigm shift in school leadership, a top-down technocratic approach that narrows its focus to “fixing” schools by employing business strategies—more testing, more administrators, limited interference by the public or the teacher union.”

MCAS responded with a series of local forums: One put local issues in the context of education policy fights across New Jersey and the nation. A second modeled social justice teaching and curriculum practices. A third brought educators and students from New York’s Performance Standards Consortium schools to describe alternatives to standardized testing. Each forum was packed and well-covered in local media.

Another powerful response came from Montclair’s teachers. The board had reversed a long tradition of hearing from the local union president at each meeting. So groups of teachers stood together at the podium and took turns highlighting the impact of too much testing and confusing mandates. One or two brave principals stood with them.

As we go to press, a stunning turn of events underscored again how corporate reform plays out differently across inequalities of power, race, and class. Faced with growing opposition, MacCormack abruptly resigned to take an unspecified job with a “new educational services organization” in New York City. She left behind a “shock doctrine” budget gap of more than $8 million and a renewed scramble for control of the school board. Stung by their setbacks, MacCormack’s supporters launched a new, anonymous group called “Montclair Kids First,” backed by one of the state’s prominent legal firms and led by Shavar Jeffries, Baraka’s defeated opponent.

That same week, Anderson faced a deadline for renewal of her state contract. Members of the Newark Student Union occupied her office for three days demanding her resignation. Newark’s state legislative delegation unanimously supported her removal. But the Christie administration gave her another extension, with a $37,000 bonus on top of her $255,000 salary, and declared that Anderson “has worked tirelessly to implement positive education reforms that have benefited Newark students and parents.”

The Case for Common Ground

The school reform battles in Newark and Montclair are part of a national struggle over the direction of public education, and the outcome is still very much in doubt. But there are some encouraging signs that building pro-public education coalitions across urban, suburban, race, and class lines is possible.

In the midst of Newark’s mayoral campaign, MCAS held a fundraiser in Montclair for Ras Baraka. At an overflowing house party, MCAS parents spoke about their efforts to realize a democratic vision of integrated schools and put support for public education back at the center of state and national policy. Baraka spoke passionately about how much it meant to children and parents in Newark to know they had allies beyond their neighborhoods.

Ties across district lines are growing. “Cares about Schools” groups have popped up in more than two dozen other districts. Save Our Schools, N.J., a statewide parents group, has grown to more than 20,000 supporters and built an advocacy network that’s done terrific work on school funding, charter accountability, privatization, and testing. The N.J. Education Association has initiated a campaign against the overuse of standardized testing that is crossing community and constituency lines more consciously than in the past.

Two recent events hint at the possibilities. On a cold January night, MCAS partnered with the Montclair Education Association to sponsor “an evening of song, poetry, comedy, music, and spoken word celebrating the joy of creative teaching and educators.” A crowd gathered in the performance space of a local bar to celebrate the diverse voices of Montclair’s public schools. During a break, an MCAS parent made an announcement: A series of “Undoing Racism” workshops would be held in late March. Participants would be drawn from both Newark and Montclair, with representation from educators and community. “Undoing racism,” she repeated. “Let’s have more of that. And it comes right at the end of the first round of [Common Core] testing, a perfect time to look at issues of race in education.”

A few days later, Ras Baraka became the first mayor of a major city to publicly endorse the right of parents to opt out of state tests. “While test data can be a useful part of accountability systems,” he declared, “the misuse and overuse of standardized tests has undermined the promise of equity and opportunity. . . . New Jersey needs an immediate moratorium on using standardized tests for high-stakes purposes, such as graduation, teacher evaluations, and restructuring schools. . . . I stand in solidarity with the opposition to this regime of standardized testing.”

The seeds of solidarity are starting to sprout.

Stan Karp is a Rethinking Schools editor. This article is adapted from a talk at the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference, October 2014.