NEWARK — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) went on a publicity blitz when he vowed to fix this city’s struggling schools with the most expansive reengineering of urban education anywhere in the country.
He told Oprah Winfrey in 2010 that Newark would become a “national model.” He said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the plan would be “paradigm shifting.” And he took ownership when community leaders began to complain about some of the plan’s controversial elements — bragging last year about the day he faced down Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who had been elected on a promise to fight Christie’s schools plan.
“I’m the decider,” Christie said he told Baraka. “You have nothing to do with it.”
But five years after Christie launched what could have been a career-defining policy initiative for an aspiring future president, city leaders are in revolt.
On Wednesday, city, county and state officials, along with clergy and civil rights leaders, met in Washington with senior Obama administration officials, arguing that the schools plan has thrown their city into chaos.
The U.S. Department of Education is investigating seven separate complaints of civil rights violations stemming from Christie’s plan, called “One Newark,” according to a department spokeswoman.
The plan, which fully took effect during this academic year, essentially blew up the old system. It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices. It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.
Many families saw their children spread among multiple schools or sent across town. The scattering has been problematic for a city divided along gang lines, where four in 10 residents don’t own cars.
In addition, state test scores have stayed the same or even declined. Amid protests,Christie’s hand-picked Newark superintendent, Cami Anderson, faces calls for her removal — even from some of her onetime allies.
Now, a school overhaul that once seemed like an ideal talking point for a Republican governor looking to make his mark as a tough-minded reformer is turning into another drag on Christie’s already flagging presidential prospects.
Christie, through a spokesman, declined to comment. His education commissioner, David Hespe, said the early indicators from Newark were positive.
“It will take time to see the type of progress we all want,” he said. “Whatever we’re doing, we need to double down.”
Christie’s former education commissioner, Christopher Cerf, an early architect of the plan, said conflict was inevitable.
“You can’t be a caretaker in this business,” he said. “You’ve got to go in and do something big and brave and bold. If you are going to be consequential, you’re going to be controversial.”
Anderson said many parents are supportive. “Some people are hugging me and crying, some people are wait-and-see,” she said. “The amount of momentum and good will on the ground is palpable.”
As tensions have mounted, Christie has distanced himself from Newark. He did not mention Newark during his State of the State address in January, a contrast to the year before, when he highlighted the plan and singled out Anderson. Of the more than 100 town hall meetings he has hosted as governor, he has held none in Newark.
Opposition to the schools plan here has been led by the teachers union, a longtime Christie foil, which poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into last year’s mayoral race and helped elect Baraka in a contest seen as a referendum on One Newark.
But in recent months, the ranks of the defiant have swelled to include city leaders, state lawmakers, church pastors, civil rights advocates, parents and community activists. Even onetime boosters of One Newark, including some philanthropists and charter school operators, have soured on it.
Last month, eight high school students occupied school district headquarters for four days, tweeting and posting to Facebook their unheeded demand that Anderson resign. Previously, 77 clergy members sent a letter to Anderson and Christie saying the plan was producing “irreversible changes and fomenting widespread outrage.”
Baraka and others also charge that One Newark violates commitments made by New Jersey to the federal government.
“This belongs in the governor’s lap,” said Baraka, a former high school principal and son of the late poet Amiri Baraka, an African American cultural figure and celebrated Newark native. “This catastrophe that’s happening is a black eye. He has to address this straight on and take full responsibility for what’s happening and reverse it.”
The state first seized control of Newark’s troubled school system in 1995, but a string of Republicans and Democrats who preceded Christie failed to improve it.
For Christie, who was born in Newark, it was a chance to show he could solve one of the country’s most intractable problems.
He launched the initiative in 2010, when Cory Booker, then the Democratic mayor of Newark, had persuaded Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to donate $100 million to remake public education in Newark.
Zuckerberg had no ties to Newark. When he joined Christie and Booker on Oprah Winfrey’s television show to announce the grant, Zuckerberg said he chose Newark “really just because I believe in these guys.”
In May 2011, Christie hired Anderson, a former Teach for America executive who had worked on Booker’s first mayoral campaign. She then spent hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Zuckerberg gift on consultants to craft a plan out of public view.
Booker left City Hall before the plan was announced, winning a special election in 2013 to replace the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (D).
If there is any agreement in Newark, it is the notion that its schools are in crisis. Newark has seen a steady rise in charter schools, which siphon away funds from the traditional schools, leaving them half-empty and increasingly populated by the neediest students. A bloated payroll of nearly 8,000 made the schools the largest employer in a city that was once an industrial powerhouse. Graduation rates and test scores have been dismal.
With Christie’s blessing — and freed from the need for approval from a local school board — Anderson pushed through a raft of changes, many untested. While other cities have experimented with one or two reforms, no other urban system launched them all, simultaneously.
The end of neighborhood schools meant that newcomers no longer had a right to attend the school down the street. The new citywide lottery, relying on a computer algorithm, forced many students to change schools while dividing siblings in some cases between different schools in different parts of the city.
Anderson turned over three traditional schools to charter operators, circumventing the state requirement that a conventional school can convert to a charter only with permission from 51 percent of the staff and parents. She shut down two schools, selling one building to the Newark outpost for the KIPP chain of charter schools.
The superintendent broke up several large high schools and created smaller “academies” housed in the same buildings, with different staffs, curriculums and resources. And she selected eight schools to be “renewed,” which meant she fired the principals and half the staff, often replacing them with young educators from outside Newark who had ties to Teach for America and other similar reform organizations.
A newly negotiated teacher contract allowed the administration for the first time to push out teachers who are repeatedly rated ineffective, and give merit pay to strong performers.
By her own internal metrics, Anderson reports the traditional schools under her control are improving and that more students have access to quality schools. She said graduation rates are up, as are scores on state English tests taken by high school juniors.
Yet the K-8 test scores show no significant improvement. The percentage of students proficient in reading and math on state tests dropped in 2014 compared to 2011, before One Newark. At the schools where Anderson replaced administrators and staff, student scores lagged behind those in other New Jersey schools with similar demographics, according to state data.
Anderson attributed poor test scores to the fact that New Jersey state tests have grown more difficult just as Newark schools have seen increases in the percentage of special needs students and English-language learners.
“It’s like comparing apples to rocks,” she said. “We have a very different school population than three years ago. Meanwhile, the tests got harder.”
Critics say Anderson — and, by extension, Christie — have alienated the community with their methods.
Booker, in his initial, optimistic national appearances with Christie in 2010, promised that Newark residents would shape the changes made to their schools. But many local leaders say the reality was a secretive, top-down approach.
For more than a year, Anderson has refused to meet with the Newark school advisory board, a locally elected body that is supposed to advise her. The board unanimously voted “no confidence” in Anderson, and she stormed out of a January 2014 board meeting, never to return, saying the level of vitriol made policy discussions impossible. She also ignored requests to appear before the New Jersey legislature for a year before relenting in January to endure four hours of public scolding by lawmakers.
“She’s horribly isolated right now,” said the Rev. Edwin Leahy, the longtime headmaster of St. Benedict’s Prep, a parochial school in Newark.
Race is an additional tension point, he added. “The problem right now in urban education reform, and this may sound funny coming from me,” said Leahy, who is white, “but it’s a bunch of white people who have a lot of money from outside the city who are imposing their view on what should be going on for people of color in the city. It’s a bad model.”
Robert Curvin, a longtime Newark resident and author of a political history of the city, initially supported Anderson but now thinks she should go.
“She’s faced a very tough situation, and she’s made it worse,” he said. She is “very, very smart,” he added, but “hasn’t produced all that she says she has, and she hasn’t brought anybody along with her.”
Christie has faced questions about why, as he travels the state to engage in his signature town hall meetings, he has not held an event in his state’s biggest city.
He bristled last summer when a Newark high school student showed up at a town hall in a Jersey shore town to ask him to come to her city.
“The idea that I’ve ignored Newark is ridiculous,” Christie said. “. . . And so the answer is, I’ll do my town halls where me and my staff think are the best places to do my town halls, and if one of them turns up in Newark, I hope you show up and get to ask a question that’s better than the one you just asked.”
Last week, Christie’s administration showed that the governor has no intention of backing down. Hespe, the education commissioner, announced that the state was renewing Anderson’s contract for another year.