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Opinion: Ras Baraka -- the Best Thing to Happen to NJ School Reform

Unapologetically old school in his attitude toward education, Baraka might actually galvanize NJ's dispirited reform community into taking action

laura waters
Laura Waters

It’s painful to say, but New Jersey’s education reform community might benefit from a victory by Councilman Ras Baraka in Newark’s mayoral race.

Baraka is the Democratic labor union darling who has pledged to reverse course on charter school expansion, accountability, and school closures. His opponent, Shavar Jeffries, former president of the Newark Schools Advisory Council, recently issued a thoughtful plan for academic progress that includes local control, longer school days, improved teacher support, and expanded choices for the 40,000 children who attend Newark’s public schools.

So why would an education reformer root for Baraka?

Let’s glance across the Hudson River for a serendipitous analogy with the current plight of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. This progressive Democrat is the not-so-proud papa of the shortest political honeymoon in history. After only two months in office, his approval rating has plunged from 70 percent to 39 percent. There are many reasons for his decline, but at the top of the list is his decision to interfere with collaborative facilities plans, or “co-locations,” for three of NYC’s best charter schools.

Last month de Blasio abruptly rescinded three agreements between former mayor Mike Bloomberg and Eva Moscowitz, who runs the highly-successful Success Academy charter schools. A Democratic Party consultant who asked to remain nameless explained that de Blasio is “deeply hostile to the idea of charter schools and deeply hostile to the education reform movement as a whole… he is someone who just subscribes to the traditional teachers-union-based belief that anything outside the old school public education, any innovation, any reform, is a bad idea.”

In other words, de Blasio is the New York version of Ras Baraka.

Mayor de Blasio has made his opposition to school choice and school reform the most memorable part of his short administration. He solidified this impression last Tuesday by traveling to Albany to lobby Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo for a preschool tax at the same time as Moscowitz, possibly single-handedly, bused in 10,000 Success Academy students and parents for a spirited afternoon rally to protest the evictions. De Blasio cooled his heels while Cuomo played to the crowds, proclaiming, “we will save charter schools!”

Ever since that gloomy Tuesday, a hangdog De Blasio has spent his days retracting his criticisms about charter schools along with his evictions of Success Academy’s three schools. Parents, children, teachers, and community members who value school options other than their assigned neighborhood schools are unified and energized. If Pete Seeger were still around he’d be writing ballads about Eva Moscowitz and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Newark is not New York City. Among NYC’s 1.1 million students, only 6 percent attend public charter schools instead of traditional public schools. In Newark over 20 percent of the city’s 40,000 students are enrolled in one of the city’s 18 charter schools, an indelible and robust part of the educational landscape. In Newark’s South Ward, where both Baraka and Jeffries grew up, 40 percent of schoolchildren have applied to charter schools and 80 percent of rising kindergarteners are on charter school waiting lists. Newark families vote not with their feet but with their charter school applications.

But unlike NYC’s loud and unified call for charter school protection, New Jersey reform advocates, in Newark and throughout the state, are silent, even as the insults keep piling up: Sen. Ronald Rice’s proposal to block closures of failing and underenrolled Newark schools; NJEA’s increasingly strident and well-financed campaign against school choice, including accusations that the Christie administration is “engaged in a systematic campaign to undermine, demonize and ultimately privatize schools”; Newark Teachers Union president Joe Del Grosso’s dismissive slap at former Education Commissioner Chris Cerf because the union needs “commissioners who are champions of public schools, period”; frontrunner Baraka’s regressive and ill-informed stance against “the corporate reform model now being implemented in Newark.”

Where is New Jersey’s reform community in this midst of this barrage?

As fragmented as our state and as enervated as a shadow. Better Education for Kids (B4K), JerseyCAN, Democrats for Education Reform, Excellent Education for Everyone: you can count them up but you can’t count on them to spark a unified groundswell of support for the needs of schoolchildren.

Maybe we’ve been sedated by the soothing presence of the Obama Administration’s commitment to an education reform agenda and the growth and the expansion of school choice despite controversy. Or maybe we’re subdued by the diminution of Gov. Chris Christie, who shares, if nothing else, President Barack Obama’s commitment to public schools, charter and traditional. Or maybe the Jersey reform movement was derailed over the past decade by a politically wrought emphasis on school vouchers at the expense of more inclusive initiatives.

So a Baraka victory may, like de Blasio’s inept stewardship, ignite our inner Eva Moscowitz and unify this fragmented, rudderless community.

A couple of weeks ago, Marie Corfield, ardent reform opponent and erstwhile NJ Assembly candidate, issued this endorsement for Baraka:

“Newark is the epicenter of education 'reform' in New Jersey, and this is why Newark needs Ras Baraka . . . The madness must end. New York City has Bill de Blasio. Newark -- and all of New Jersey -- needs Ras Baraka.”

I think she’s right. NJ’s desultory education reform community needs Baraka, our Bill de Blasio, to provide a unifying jolt to the fight for educational access and equity.

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