by Michelle Renee Matisons and Seth Sandronsky
Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker tried to turn the city’s public schools over to privatizers and billionaires. But, there’s a new mayor in town. Ras Baraka’s “victory is about creating the educational climate – supported by larger goals of racial/ economic justice – that is required for thriving students.”
Ras Baraka's Victory: Indicting Education Crimes
by Michelle Renee Matisons and Seth Sandronsky
This article previously appeared in Counterpunch.
“You act like we’re in a state of martial law. You act like you deployed the army on us…” – Natasha Allen, mother of a Newark high school junior, to Newark School Superintendent Cami Anderson
“History proves the state has never had any intention of returning control to local school districts.”
It is exciting, and rare, to see politicians who really represent people triumph over corporate sponsored sycophants who only represent their backers’ bank accounts. Democrat Ras Baraka’s May 13, 2014 mayoral victory over Democrat Shavar Jeffries in Newark, New Jersey, is especially important because one major issue emerged to dominate the election: local control over public education. While corporate education reformers unabashedly push their anti-democratic agenda nationally, Baraka’s victory is a reminder that participatory democratic values and common sense principles (such as local control and economic justice) can win over education reformers’ criminal activities.
As Newark voters just reminded us, educational sovereignty is not an abstraction – but a concrete necessity. Parents know when their children are being denied, neglected, and abused. Teachers know when they are being used and discarded: their jobs are reduced to rote mouthpieces for profiteering edu-speak. Children feel their futures being stolen from them. They feel more alienated from schools, teachers, lesson plans, and standardized tests. Baraka’s victory is about creating the educational climate – supported by larger goals of racial/ economic justice – that is required for thriving students.
There are many possibilities for Newark, as people now grapple with how to dismantle the state’s long term edu-colonial apparatus and return education decisions to Newark’s mayor, school board, parents, teachers, school employees and students. (New Jersey was the first state to conduct school district takeover, and Newark has been state occupied since 1995.) An assessment of the state’s vast bureaucratic obstacles begs the question: “How will Newark’s people regain control of their schools?”
“Baraka’s victory stands as an indictment of state crimes against Newark citizens—especially its students.”
Minimally, it will take the same grassroots efforts it took to get Baraka elected. One of the state’s key oppressive tools is the insistence that school districts show competency in certain areas for the state to return control. However, history proves the state has never had any intention of returning control to local school districts. Forget about that promise, and the “procedure” laid out by the state for regaining control. Occupied districts have met competency criteria before, yet the state ignores these facts. School takeover, while once conceived as a way to circumvent established school funding fairness protocols initiated by New Jersey’s “Abbott” legal decisions, is now also seen as a pivotal initial step in privatizing/ chartering schemes. Education privatizers may have lost this election, but school thieves have other tricks – and they’re not going to back down easily with so much taxpayer money at stake.
It appears Newark’s people are not going to back down either. Baraka’s victory stands as an indictment of state crimes against Newark citizens—especially its students. In a previous article, we suggested “People’s Benchmarks” to assess the state’s school district takeover performance. “People’s benchmarks” challenge the state’s role as judge in this relationship. Who’s judging whose standards?
While the state forces occupied school districts to meet its own dubiously shifting and changing performance criteria, people can continue to indict the state for failing in at least four major areas: cooperative working relationships, zero tolerance for racism, funding fairness (not corporate strings), and improved academic performance.
1. Cooperative Relationships
How can you run an education system when no one is getting along? State takeover is never smooth, and resulting acrimonious relationships influence school climate and therefore all aspects of education – including academic performance. Studies reveal there is no proof state takeover is ever welcomed. In some areas, academic performance can be negatively impacted because different levels of government are not cooperating. The education governance system has to involve everyone – especially those who are most affected by education decisions – in order to be fair and effective. The state is indicted for the crime of autocratic rule in the Newark school district.
2. Zero Tolerance for Racism
How can you run an education system immersed in racist assumptions and practices? New Jersey’s school takeover process is racist because the majority of state controlled school districts are populated by nonwhite people, with white people (Eli Broad, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates) representing the millionaires and billionaires funding the attack on public education. Takeover supporters argue districts are innocently targeted because of academic achievement or mismanagement – not racial composition. However, racial discrimination permeates the entire process, as parents, teachers, administrators and students report feeling patronized, singled out, or targeted for incompetence based on their skin color. Newark school superintendent Cami Anderson’s elitist and dismissive attitude and behavior are just one individual example of the New Jersey Department of Education’s white supremacist culture. The state is indicted for the crime of racism in Newark.
3. Funding Fairness (not Corporate Strings)
How can you run an education system that is not funded fairly? New Jersey has the Abbott legal decisions – which established a progressive fair funding formula for its public schools. School takeover should be viewed as one way to circumvent Abbott’s fair funding principles. A February 5, 2014, Education Law Center press release states: “From 2007 through 2009, school funding in the Garden State was the second most fair, or “progressive,” in the nation. High poverty districts were funded at levels approximately 40% greater than low poverty districts. In 2010, the level dropped to 25%, and by 2011, it fell even further to 7%, driving New Jersey from 2nd to 12th place nationally. Overall funding levels also declined, with average per pupil funding in 2011 more than $1,300 below the 2007 average.” The Education Law Center also explains that Governor Christie made mid-year cuts in 2010, and then he cut $1.2 billion more in 2011. These cuts disproportionately affected low-income districts. The state is indicted for the crime of reducing school funding and ignoring Abbott’s fair funding legal precedent.
4. Improved Academic Performance
How can you run an education system that does not improve academic performance? There is no scholarly evidence that state takeover clearly improves academic performance. (And even if there was this evidence, the state can’t objectively assess its own Department of Education’s performance anyway, can it?) The lack of cooperative relationships, the racism, and school funding disparities all combine to create difficult learning conditions for students and difficult teaching conditions for teachers. The state is indicted for creating and maintaining conditions of student struggle and teacher misery.
New Jersey, Indicted
The education reformers’ plan is to make Newark an experimental playground featuring expedited, transformative, and lucrative change. Schools are quickly closed, or co-located, teachers and other workers are quickly laid off and replaced by a non-union workforce, and working families are left too dizzy from the confusion to become a significant obstacle in the plan. Ras Baraka’s election throws a monkey wrench in this plan. They tried to craft the public perception of an education crisis caused by failing teachers and incompetent or corrupt urban school leaders, while the state is actively underfunding education across the board. Newark citizens rejected this perception and the “One Newark” plan that accompanies it.
Instead of buying into the education reformers’ crisis mentality that demands a rapid-response venture philanthropist intervention, pro-public education awareness grows – with a mayor to back it. This awareness acknowledges that schools need cooperative relations, zero tolerance for racism, funding fairness, and evidence of improved academic performance. If the state is not operating from these benchmarks in occupied districts (and it’s not), it needs to pack up and go.
Baraka’s election is an indictment of state/ corporate crimes against Newark’s citizens – and the education reform paradigm in general. If they are really concerned about Newark students, they should return the schools to local control. This involves truly democratic decision making, the abolition of white supremacist views of competency and leadership, commitment to a fair funding principle, and the cessation of financial profit in education (while claiming education reform is the new civil rights movement all the while).
“If they are really concerned about Newark students, they should return the schools to local control.”
People get it wrong. Neither the education reform movement nor the public education movement can claim the mantle of today’s new civil rights movement. As it always has, the civil rights movement continues to holistically encompass many inter-related issues including jobs, voting rights, housing rights, health care, prisons/ policing, anti-violence initiatives, drug policy reform, environmental issues, and equality in education. Educational sovereignty in today’s climate of racialized class bludgeoning is a priority for many people, and one of the strongest recent examples of this priority is Ras Baraka’s mayoral victory.
Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. can be reached at [email protected].
Seth Sandronsky is a journalist in Sacramento. Email [email protected].