Review: Chris Cerf's Thoughts on Cami Anderson's Tenure and His Commitment to Returning Local Control to Newark Public Schools

This past December Chris Cerf, nominee to replace Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, wrote an editorial for NJ Spotlight in which he discussed potential processes for returning local control to the district and dispelled “five falsehoods” revolving around Anderson’s tenure.

As Newark’s adults continue to roil (last night the School Advisory Board, after a heated discussion, voted 7-0 to recommend current Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon become the next superintendent even though they have no such authority) and we wait for the State Board of Education to meet Friday to discuss Cerf’s nomination, it’s worth rereading Cerf’s thoughts about how best to serve Newark’s 45,000 students. Here are a few highlights, but read the whole thing.

(Note: in this editorial, Cerf was mostly responding to a lengthy New Yorker article by Dale Russakoff that contained a number of errors of fact and logic.)

On Anderson’s record in Newark:
Whether the measure is graduation rates, improved instructional quality, last year’s improvement in the lowest-performing schools targeted for special intervention, a nation-leading new collective-bargaining agreement, the addition of many new high-quality public schools, increased parental choice, or a material increase in the proportion of effective teachers, the arrow is pointed decidedly up in Newark.
To be sure, as is always the case, the evidence of improvement is textured and in some respects uneven. The many positive indicators and trend lines, however, paint a picture of hope and progress that is completely at odds with the pessimism that has made its way into the standard storyline.
That Anderson’s raison d’etre  was a “privatization scheme” (see Mark Weber, Bob Braun, Julia Sass Rubin and others who comprise this conspiracy fringe) to convert all schools to charter schools:
The precise opposite is the case. Indeed, this frequently repeated canard is the richest irony of all in this irony-rich saga…
Quite aside from the erroneous premise upon which this falsehood rests, it is not even true on its own terms. At the time of Superintendent Anderson's appointment, charter growth was a reality in Newark, with the city on track to having charters serve over 25 percent of its students. (Former Superintendent Marion Bolden, now among the most spirited opponents, seems to suffer from amnesia on this point.)
Superintendent Anderson fiercely advocated for controlling that growth -- pushing to close several unsuccessful charters she had inherited, limiting growth to schools that had shown demonstrable success for children, and preserving the majority of the district as noncharter “traditional" public schools. Under the most optimistic projections, Newark's charter presence will expand to 37 percent, hardly the “privatization” scenario her opponents claim -- even if that phrase has any relevance, which it emphatically does not.
And, “ A 10,000-child waiting list in a district of 45,000 tells a pretty compelling story in its own right.”

On One Newark resulting in “closing of dozens of schools”:
Not true. For all the words spilled and trees killed on this point, the underlying reality is rather tame. To the public, the phrase “close schools” means padlocking a building or converting it to a nonpublic school status. Notwithstanding innumerable assertions to the contrary from the reforms’ opponents, “One Newark” resulted in exactly two school closures by this definition. One, Miller, was in such a state of disrepair that it had become dangerously unusable. (Even in that case, the school was moved, rather than shut down altogether.) The other, Dayton, was in a part of the city that has lost most of its residents. (If new development brings them back, undoubtedly a new school would be sited there.)
On the transition to local control:
 I believe that there are individuals of character on the board who genuinely want a fresh start and are committed to keeping discussions within appropriate bounds. I encourage the superintendent to continue to work with elected officials, including the SAB [School Advisory Board], as she is already doing behind the scenes and in substantive committee meetings. By the same token, opponents of the reforms need to stop engaging in destructive activities (like encouraging students to boycott school, allowing vicious personal attacks, or distributing knowingly inaccurate copies of the collective-bargaining agreement to foment dissent). The children of Newark are watching and modeling. They deserve better. 
Third, the state and Newark’s civic leaders need to design a rational, responsible path to local control. In my judgment, the statutory mechanism for this (known as QSAC) is among the most poorly crafted laws on the books today. [Robert] Curvin [author of Inside Newark] suggests the possibility of a legislative or regulatory alternative, perhaps involving an interim board of mayoral and gubernatorial appointees and certain ex officio members of the city’s civic leadership (e.g., the president of Rutgers-Newark).
Authority would transition from the state gradually over several years, but the process would adhere to an explicit date for a complete transfer to local authorities -- subject of course to all parties meeting agreed-to deadlines and engaging in a responsible and civil transitional process.

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