Newark Mayor Appears Before City Council and Attacks School Choice

On Friday afternoon Newark Mayor Ras Baraka appeared in a closed City Council meeting (YouTube video here) and told city leaders that students who attend the traditional district schools were like a person “tied onto a train track” and the train bearing down on that person was the city’s charter school sector. 

On Saturday the Star-Ledger reported that  “a surprising partnership between Mayor Ras Baraka, charter school advocates and other local political heavyweights has produced the ‘Newark Unity’ [school board] slate — a rainbow coalition aimed at diffusing the hostile rhetoric that often arrives part and parcel with campaigns for city office."   Mayor Baraka told the press that “at this time we need to overcome our differences, to work together, to unite to ensure that all of our children get the very best education," he said. "We must move beyond the fighting, ideological wars and turmoil."

Welcome to Ras Baraka’s world: divide and conquer, at least when it’s politically convenient.
You’ve got to give him this: his inconsistency is consistent, at least in the sense that the pattern of his  campaign strategy relies on a scapegoat.  Mayor Baraka achieved his first mayoral victory in 2014 by vilifying then-Superintendent Cami Anderson.  Apparently his strategy for victory in May 2018 is vilifying Newark’s charter school sector, which next year will serve almost 40% of public school students.

Some might conclude that this strategy is  a little risky because  Newark charter school parents are increasingly mobilized and empowered.  But, really, it’s kind of perfect. He'll fuel divisiveness while the ironically-named “Unity Slate” provides just the right amount of cover.

But only if you don’t look too closely.

Let’s go back to that City Council appearance on Friday. There, the Mayor distributed material from the Education Law Center, now essentially operating as NJEA’s policy arm. I couldn’t tell from the video, but most likely the papers that he riffled throughout the meeting came from ELC’s  recent report on Newark’s fiscal woes. In that report, ELC demands that the State fully fund the 2008 pre-Recession School Funding Reform Act. (See Jeff Bennett on why this recommendation "is deeply unfair to the scores of New Jersey districts who are more underaided than Newark is.")  ELC/Barka also recommends that the State Education Commissioner “temporarily halt the expansion of enrollment in existing Newark charter schools.”

(That charter school moratorium proposal has received renewed attention  since Eric Dawson published a letter that the Mayor wrote on Dec. 17th asking the Ed. Comm. to halt all Newark charter school growth. The City Council responded by writing its own letter, urging the Comm. to ignore Baraka’s letter. )

On Friday, Mayor Baraka explained to Council members that “not everyone has the courage and integrity to say what needs to be said":  there is “pending doom” in Newark. This crisis is caused by what he later refers to as a “tsunami” of families choosing charter schools. These children, says Baraka, primarily “come from the South and West Wards,” although “kids in the North and East Wards” are “drifting back” towards traditional district schools. But, despite this “drift,”the state’s requirement that district schools only keep 10% of cost per pupil is “decimating” the district’s budget,” which this year struggled with a $70 million deficit out of its annual $900 million budget.

The Mayor says, “I’m not doing this” -- coming before the Council, writing letters to the Commissioner, I suppose -- “ to create an atmosphere of charter vs. traditional... we should not fall into this same trick bag.” But, he explains,
The ELC has alarm, the Superintendent has alarm. the Mayor has alarm, the Commissioner has alarm, and, whether you know it or not, some folks in the charter community understand the same alarm.[NPS] “needs to be fully funded by the state, the full Abbott money...Ask Ryan Hill  [CEO of KIPPNJ]. He knows it. Ask the Superintendent. He knows it.. If you don’t you’re going to kill our kids..primarily special needs kids....who we know are overwhelmingly African American males. We cannot allow the train to roll over the body tied up on the trestle.”
And what about the surge of parent demand for scarce seats in charter schools? Those parents, he says, are being fooled. “All these parents who got kids in charters got kids in public too. No win for them. I got friends who got babies in charters in Gray Academy, New Horizons, even some of the KIPP schools [charter schools],  and their older kids are going to University , they’re going to Science district magnet high schools]. - those kids are going to be affected too.” Superintendent Cerf was able to protect classrooms through careful cuts, but next year he’ll “have to lay teachers off...decimate that whole thing.”

[Note: University and Science are magnet schools with strict admissions criteria. They serve far fewer students with special needs and free/reduced lunch eligibility than Newark's  traditional or charter schools. University has 0 English Language Learners. Science Park has 1.]

Note the pattern. Throughout the speech, Baraka relies on divisiveness: charter schools vs. traditionals; charter school parents vs. traditional district parents; students in general education vs. children with special  needs, the South and West Wards vs. the North and East Wards of Newark.

Then the next day Mayor Baraka backs the “Unity Slate.” (Through some backroom finagling he was able to select one of the three candidates. His pick, Leah Owens, was one of his teachers when he was principal of Central High and  now works for NJ Communities United, the union backed-group that campaigned for Baraka in the last election, organized students against Cami Anderson, and describes school choice as “ right-wing efforts to funnel tax dollars into private and charter schools.” ELC’s PR person Sharon Krengel is on its Board.

Now, the Mayor is right about a number of issues. The relatively rapid expansion of charter schools in Newark presents grave fiscal challenges for the traditional district*, although it’s worth remembering that independent schools have been part of the city’s educational landscape for over twenty years. Newly-empowered parents are demanding seats in effective public schools, which right now happen to mostly be charters, and families appear to be less likely to be placated by ward bosses.

All these shifts require  the district to implement transitional budgeting and downsizing, a very difficult task. Certainly, the State needs to help out, although, as Baraka himself acknowledges, fully funding N.J.’s quixotic school funding formula, despite ELC’s remonstrations,  will never happen.

However, when a mayor  privileges his personal agenda  over community need, he loses credibility. Baraka's blatantly divisive commentary to the City Council -- "Unity" school board slate or not -- diminishes his integrity and leadership.  In 2014 school choice in Newark was a wedge issue that swung Baraka’s way. In 2016 it will be a wedge issue too and Baraka is betting that smearing the charter school sector will produce another personal victory. At this point, that's a risky proposition.

* Indeed, the N.J. Department of Education's 2015-2016 analysis of state school funding shows that over the last two years Newark Public Schools has transferred more money to the city's charter schools than originally envisioned in the state charter school law: $63,189,267 more. This is due to changes in budget 'language provisions."

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