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Opinion: Newark Needs More than Facebook Reform

The Christie, Booker, Zuckerberg extravaganza can't hide an inconvenient truth: Newark is in shambles.

Newark captured the nation’s attention with the recent pep rally on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," starring Governor Chris Christie, Mayor Cory Booker, and newly minted Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg.

But all the glitz, glitter and good feelings, not to mention the $100 million, aren't enough to silence some troubling questions or hide some unpleasant truths.

Newark is in financial shambles. The municipal government, smaller than the school district, is bent on trying to borrow its way out of bankruptcy. The Devils don’t pay rent for the Prudential Center. No one knows when Newark can reclaim its school district from the state and, when it does, if it will be run by an elected or mayoral board.

That last item raises another disturbing question: Who's really in charge of Newark's schools?

As a state-operated district, the education commissioner selects Newark’s superintendent, the superintendent runs the school system, seeking suggestions (or not) from an elected but powerless advisory board.

Mark Zuckerberg says his $100 million is contingent on Mayor Booker running the show. Christie says he will retain Booker as his deputy to oversee the Newark schools.

That may sound okay on Oprah, but it is likely to incite confusion and litigation back home.

The mayor is already backing away from the role announced by the governor. He now speaks of working with the Newark community and its elected advisory board. In Trenton, the acting education commissioner testified that the statute is very clear and that the governor and mayor have no authority to take over the Newark public schools.

Moreover, superintendent Clifford Janey is a lame duck. His contract runs until June. His chief academic officer is brand new and the business administrator is newish. For the people who have to do the work, there is no clarity about who is in charge and what the mission is.

Even Zuckerberg's generous gift can't obscure another disquieting issue.

Veteran Newark educators have heard promises of “change” and “reform” every time a new superintendent or mayor or commissioner or governor or president arrives. By now, they know that reformers overpromise and under-deliver. They know that the problems they must contend with are more complex than the simplistic nostrums advanced by reformers. Their skepticism is merited.

Newark is the regional favorite for reformers. For decades, foundations, universities, think-tanks, entrepreneurs, and federal and state bureaucrats have gravitated to Newark as the place to prove that something can be done. The same educational problems in Paterson or Elizabeth have been largely ignored. The Facebook Reform is just the latest in a long line of enthusiastically announced, quietly buried reforms.

After the riots, the cry was for black leaders at the district and school level to provide role models and a more racially sensitive curriculum. Since 1970, every superintendent has been black; half of all administrators are black.

Then came the push to increase state funding so Newark’s schools would have the money for better salaries and facilities. Thirty years later, Newark is the highest-spending urban district in the nation and is second only to Asbury Park.

In the 1990s, the NJ Supreme Court ordered every Newark school (and those in 30 other city districts) adopt a model of “whole school reform.” The result was chaos and confusion as 10 different models were implemented in the city’s 80 schools, many with conflicting educational approaches and some with no instructional focus at all.

The biggest reform came with the state takeover of the Newark system, citing a bloated headquarters, mismanagement, political favoritism, and (secondarily) poor achievement. Top officials were fired, a new team was brought in from New York City. That resulted in a reduction in low-level employees, poor financial management, and more attention to academics.

That's only the beginning:

  • Project GRAD has been working for more than a decade with Shabazz and Central high schools and their feeder K-8 schools, with an emphasis on improved academics and classroom management.

  • Global Village, based at NYU, has recently announced that it too will bring comprehensive services to bear on Central High and its K-8 feeder schools.

  • The federally funded School Innovation Grants were announced in June to “transform” three Newark schools, including Central High, “turnaround” Shabazz, and “restart” Renaissance.

  • The charter school movement has funded a Newark foundation to improve quality in Newark’s dozen charter schools and promote new charters to capture 25 percent share of the city’s students (up from 12 percent).

The Facebook Reform will have to wait in line. Newark has been reformed out. Instead of reform, let's try for steady, ambitious improvement.

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