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Gov. Christie’s new crisis: Protests grow over state control of Newark schools

There’s a new crisis in New Jersey, and it isn’t about traffic jams.

Public protests in Newark are growing over an effort by Superintendent Cami Anderson, who was appointed to run the state-operated district by Gov. Chris Christie, to reshape the city’s school system. She plans to close some traditional schools, lay off more than 1,000 teachers and hire Teach For America recruits to fill some open spots, and create a single enrollment system for  the 21 charters and 71 traditional public schools under an initiative called One Newark.

Anderson, who also asked the state to allow her to get rid of teachers based on controversial evaluations rather than by seniority as current rules demand, recently announced she would no longer attend monthly school board meetings where critics consistently show up to protest and demand her resignation.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten sent a letter (see text below) to Christie on Wednesday night telling him that the way to end the “crisis” was to return control of the Newark schools, which have been run by the state since 1994.

In 2013, traffic gridlock paralyzed a town next to the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey to New York City for four days. N.J. Gov. Chris Christie denies knowing abut any plans for wrongdoing. (Video: Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

Christie, now embroiled in a scandal that erupted when top aides arranged a traffic jam last year to retaliate against a mayor who refused to endorse Christie’s re-election, has been vocally supportive of Anderson. In his recent State of the State speech, he praised her efforts to reform the school system even while noting that they have sometimes been met with “skepticism.” He also hailed “a historic contract with the teacher’s union” — the very same contract that Weingarten says Anderson now wants to change.

It should be noted that there isn’t much love lost between Christie and the state’s teachers, which you can read about in this post titled “Why teachers think Gov. Christie is a bully.”

Here’s the text of Weingarten’s letter:

February 26, 2014
The Honorable Chris Christie
Governor of New Jersey
PO Box 001
Trenton, NJ 08625
Dear Governor Christie:
There is a crisis in Newark. And that crisis was made worse by your schools Superintendent Cami Anderson opting not to attend last night’s School Advisory Board meeting to hear the concerns and desires of parents, educators, students and the people of Newark.
Governor, you have complete and total control over the schools—the way they are managed, the way they are funded. The Newark community has met state requirements to regain local control twice now, in 2011 and 2013. But your administration kept changing the bar, and the state remains in control.
At the very least, then, your superintendent has the obligation to listen to the people of Newark—the people who send their children to our schools, and the people who spend their working lives trying to make a difference in children’s lives.
So we’re clear, please know I don’t condone disrespectful behavior, be it at a school board meeting or when, in my opinion, you bullied teachers. However, the potential that some at a school board meeting could be boisterous does not justify the superintendent skipping it entirely.
The people of Newark want their schools back. They don’t want the One Newark plan, and they have lost faith in the way Superintendent Anderson has managed the city’s public schools.
Let me explain. Superintendent Anderson dismantled the Global Village—a smart, community-driven effort to provide children with much-needed wraparound services. She ended the Newcomer program, which provided support for English language learners. Her “renew” schools efforts have yielded poor results. She quickly spent the sizable donation from Facebook. She suspended several administrators who disagreed with her, and she made backroom deals with charter operators. She is forcing through her One Newark plan despite public outcry. And now, under the guise of so-called budget problems, the superintendent has asked out-going state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf to allow her to waive our contract and state law, and wants to replace experienced teachers with new Teach for America recruits, who have never stepped into a classroom and have no qualifications to teach in the Newark schools.
We worked on that contract together. We agreed that it put into place policies that would be good for students and for teachers. You said yourself that it would “improve the quality of education across the City of Newark.” This is a failure of management, a failure of fiscal stewardship and a failure of instructional leadership.
Rather than deal with the fact that Newark students are suffering, school buildings are crumbling and staggering inequities persist, Superintendent Anderson would instead blame and mass fire the people who have devoted their lives to helping Newark’s children.
Instead of driving deeper divisions and distrust in Newark, we need to be focused on solutions that work—early childhood education, wraparound services, project-based learning, professional development and more. We need to make Newark schools places where kids can build trusting relationships with each other and with adults, where they can learn the critical-thinking skills they need to compete in the 21st century, and where they develop the persistence and grit they’ll need to deal with adversity.
Governor, the Newark community has made it known: They don’t want mass closings, mass firings or mass privatization. They want to regain local control of the district. They want to reclaim the promise of public education in Newark.
I ask you to listen. Give the people of Newark their schools and their future back.
Randi Weingarten
Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson
Education Commissioner Chris Cerf
Newark Teachers Union President Joesph Del Grosso
AFT-New Jersey President Donna Chiera
State Senator Ronald Rice
State Senator M. Teresa Ruiz
State Senate President Steve Sweeney
State Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto