Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) exchanged letters Friday with Cami Anderson, the state-appointed superintendent of Newark Public Schools and architect of a controversial school system overhaul in New Jersey’s largest city.
Payne wrote first, demanding answers to his questions about One Newark, the program that Anderson implemented despite widespread opposition from community leaders. He said he was writing after waiting for more than a year for a response from Anderson to a similar letter he sent in February 2014.
“In the time since I sent the (first) letter, we have seen increased community backlash over One Newark,” Payne’s April 24 e-mail said. “This includes widespread criticism that requests to meet and engage with your administration in productive dialogue have been repeatedly ignored, and there is a lack of accountability and transparency with regard to the plan.”
Anderson, who has been widely criticized by New Jersey state lawmakers and Newark community leaders for being unresponsive, sent a letter to Payne, apologizing for never answering his first letter.
“Thank you for bringing to my attention that you experienced some difficulty in reaching my office,” Anderson wrote. “Your experience is by no means intentional and must be the result of miscommunication between systems.”
Payne organized a meeting last month between community leaders in Newark and the U.S. Department of Education, which is investigating seven separate complaints of civil rights violations stemming from One Newark.
The plan is the signature initiative crafted by Anderson, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie (R) in 2011 to run Newark Public Schools. The state seized control of Newark Public Schools in 1995 amid academic and financial failure, but two decades of state control has resulted in little progress.
One Newark, which fully took effect in the current academic year, essentially blew up the old school 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.
With Christie’s blessing — and freed from the need for approval from a local school board — Anderson pushed through a raft of changes, many of which were untested. While other cities have experimented with one or two reforms, no other urban system launched them all simultaneously.
As a result, 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, and where many residents don’t own cars.
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.
Meanwhile, state test scores have stayed flat or even declined, and Anderson has faced continuous calls for her removal — even from some of her onetime allies.
City leaders, including Mayor Ras Baraka, who won office on the promise he would fight One Newark, say Anderson imposed change from above, instead of working alongside residents.
Christie, who is eyeing a run for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, has declined requests to discuss One Newark, and he avoids mentioning the project in public.