Cami Anderson, who runs the largest school district in New Jersey, came to Washington on Thursday to give a quiet talk about education at a think tank. But the staid event quickly turned dramatic when a busload of angry residents followed Anderson from Newark in a display of the slugfest politics that have infused debate over public education across the country.
“For us, what’s going on in Newark is not a triumph, it’s a tragedy,” said Sharon Smith, who has three children in that city’s public schools and was among about 40 parents and students who filled the 12th floor conference room at the American Enterprise Institute. “Our children are facing this disruption, and we don’t have a voice.”
The Newark protesters, several of whom registered in advance for the event, ate a hot buffet lunch and waited for Anderson to appear, surprising organizers and sending them scurrying.
“We’ve had 150 of these events since I’ve been here — people like Michelle Rhee after she closed schools in D.C. and (former New York City Schools Chancellor) Joel Klein when he was very controversial,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy for the conservative think tank. “Never before had such a disruption threatened in such a way.”
After some delay, a staffer announced that Anderson would deliver her talk in a room two floors below without an audience, news that was met with howls of protest.
“I feel ostracized!” screamed Tanaisa Brown, a 16-year-old high school junior, as the lights in the room were turned off and the crowd was asked to leave. In the dark, several kept chanting “Stop One Newark!” while one repeatedly blew a whistle.
What happened at AEI was a small taste of the brawls that have been roiling Newark since last year, when Anderson rolled out “One Newark”, a plan to relocate some schools, convert others to public charter schools and re-engineer still more traditional public schools by replacing all their principals and teachers.
The plan for the 35,000-student school system has been the target of lawsuits, a federal complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education and student boycotts. It was a central factor in last spring’s mayoral race, which led to high school principal Ras Baraka winning office in large part because of his opposition to One Newark. Baraka wrote to President Obama last month and asked him to intervene on behalf of the community.
“I’m opposed to all of it,” Baraka said by phone Thursday. “She has forced this down people’s throats, and the people don’t want it. We need a new superintendent.”
Tensions have grown so much in Newark that Anderson no longer attends meetings of the locally elected school advisory board, where her opponents regularly railed against her, hurling invectives.
The Newark Public Schools, which were taken over by the state in 1995, have long suffered from underperformance and financial instability. In 2010, then-mayor Cory Booker (D) and Gov. Chris Christie (R) persuaded Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to donate $100 million for a radical rethinking of the city’s public education, with the goal of making it a national model.
The following year, Christie hired Anderson, who negotiated an innovative contract with the teachers union that allowed merit pay. At the same time, the school district was losing thousands of students to charter schools and along with them per-pupil subsidies at the rate of about $30 million a year.
Struggling district schools were emptying out while charters had growing waiting lists, Anderson said. About 25 percent of public school students in Newark attend charters; that is expected to grow to 40 percent by 2018. The result was underutilized, crumbling district facilities where the students who remained tended to be the most difficult to educate, Anderson said.
The district needed a way to quickly improve quality at district schools and reduce costs to better compete with the growing charter sector, she said.
The One Newark plan, which took effect in September, essentially erased school boundaries by allowing students to win seats at traditional schools or charters through a single lottery, similar to those in the District and New Orleans.
The new enrollment system afforded many families some choice among schools but also sent thousands of students to new schools in unfamiliar neighborhoods, posing logistical challenges and, some say, disrupting neighborhood stability.
Anderson also cut about 1,000 jobs from the 8,000-employee payroll at the school system, enraging unions.
At AEI on Thursday, Anderson said early indicators are positive. For the first time in a decade, enrollment in Newark Public Schools has stabilized, she said. Graduation rates are up, dropout rates are down, she said.
Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, said the fight in Newark is as much about the substance of education reform as it is about the manner in which it has been applied.
“Imagine in your school district you may be voting for a local school board but the state controls the schools,” Harrison said. “For many suburbanites, it’s a difficult concept to relate to. You think of schools as being closest to where your power is. If you have a problem, you take it up at the school board. In Newark, for many people, they feel that they don’t have a say in their children’s education and that education is failing them.”
Anderson said her opponents are a “relatively small group of folks who have a very specific ideology that is anti-teacher-evaluations, anti-choice, anti-charter and anti-state-involvement,” she said. “I have people who come up to me all the time and say they’re so embarrassed by the behavior of others.”
She said parents of students at schools that have been re-engineered regularly thank her for the improvements. And she points to the fact that there are 10,000 families on charter waiting lists in Newark as evidence that parents want more quality schools.
But Baraka said Anderson is wrong.
“For her to say it’s a small group is disingenuous,” the mayor said. “The people of Newark don’t want this.”