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In Newark, a shot across the school reform bow

Ras Baraka on election night in Newark. (Eduardo Munoz/ Reuters)

Ras Baraka, a former high school principal, current councilman and son of the late poet Amiri Baraka, is the new mayor-elect of Newark and, much to the chagrin of school reformers, he can thank them for his victory.

No, they didn’t support him. And they spent gobs of money to defeat him, especially in the past few weeks in a desperate effort to prop up his opponent, lawyer Shavar Jeffries. But they gave him a winning platform with their insistence on pushing corporate school reform down the throats of Newark residents.

Baraka, in fact, owes his win to the insistent overreach of Newark’s controversial schools superintendent, Cami Anderson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’ appointee in the state-run school district. And though it was would be easy to say that the election of Baraka over Jeffries, who was  backed by corporate school reformers on Wall Street, is a result of a dynamic peculiar to Newark, the fact is that his win comes amid a number of signs that tells us that it has implications beyond the city’s borders.

For decades, when Americans were asked about the issues they most care about, they would say education was at or near the top, but it was never a real issue when it came to voting.

But in the current school reform era in which many traditional public schools are being closed and the public education system is being privatized by reformers, the issue is front and center in many communities. Throw in the growing resistance among families and educators  around the country to the standardized test-centric “accountability” systems and you have a fundamental change in dynamic. Education matters at the ballot box, shown no more clearly than in the Newark mayoral contest.

After years  in which supporters of corporate school reform  have collectively been spending millions of dollars to win referendums and secure the elections of candidates for various political offices, some contests aren’t going their way. In Bridgeport, Conn., for example, voters last November elected a school board majority critical of super-reformer superintendent Paul Vallas. A few days later, Vallas announced he was going to run for lieutenant governor of Illinois. Adios, Vallas.

Bill de Blasio campaigned for New York mayor last year as a friend of traditional public education, and his victory was hailed by those who wanted to slow down corporate school reform, which  has led to the growing privatization of public education through the spread of charter schools, vouchers, tax credit programs, etc.

In Newark,  Baraka ran against the actions of Anderson, who was appointed by Christie  in 2011. As mayor, Baraka won’t be able to simply dismiss her, although he can push the legislature to reconsider state control of the school district.
Anderson has become highly controversial — even among people who support the kinds of reforms she is implementing — because of her dismissive and arrogant management style. In fact, dozens of members of the clergy in Newark recently sent an open letter to  Christie warning him that her school reform efforts are causing so much controversy and “unnecessary instability”  in the city that they are “concerned about the level of public anger we see growing in the community” over the issue.

Many in the Newark community oppose Anderson’s “One Newark” school reorganization plan 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 Newark’s 21 charters and 71 traditional public schools.

But even those who support it think she is sabotaging her own cause by failing  to show up for budget meetings, refusing to provide a line-item budget and giving bonuses to supporters while laying off teachers.

Her decision to suspend four African American principals who spoke out against One Newark just before Martin Luther King Day at a community meeting was also criticized.

Rob Duffey, policy and communications director of New Jersey Working Families, a grass-roots progressive party that helped Baraka (with teachers unions and other groups) as well as de Blasio in New York and the Bridgeport school board candidates, said he believes the Baraka win is part of a broader activism against school reform that is also being seen in Chicago and Philadelphia. He said Baraka’s victory proves that candidates in the Baraka and De Blasio mold, who are unapologetic in their defense of traditional public education, can go up against Wall Street money and win. It also shows how the grass-roots can build independent political power to help make those victories possible.

Just how much Baraka would deviate from Anderson’s reform plans, even if he had the power to control it, is not entirely clear. A piece about Newark in the New Yorker by Dale Russakoff said Baraka expressed some views that seemed aligned to the reformers. She wrote:

In private, Baraka supported many of the reformers’ critiques of the status quo, including revoking tenure for teachers with the lowest evaluations. Although he publicly embraced the unions’ positions, he told me he opposed paying teachers based on seniority and degrees, as Newark did under its union contract. “We should make a base pay, and the only way to go up is based on student performance,” he said. He told me that many in Newark quietly agreed. But, he insisted, “this dictatorial bullying is a surefire way to get people to say, ‘No, get out of here.’” He laughed. “They talk about ‘Waiting for Superman.’ Well, Superman is not real. Did you know that? And neither is his enemy.”

For her part, Anderson said she will work with Baraka, who was a Newark high school principal before becoming a city councilman. How Christie will ultimately react to Baraka is anybody’s guess; last year, in defending Anderson against community complaints, he said:

‘I don’t care about community criticism, I care about the job she’s doing.’

It isn’t likely that Christie will much care that the community doesn’t like the job she’s doing, but it will be interesting to see how school reform will play out in Newark — and where else in the country distaste for corporate school reform affects political races.