He has virtually no say over what happens in his city’s public schools, but Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has been talking a lot about education lately.
The latest example was the “Newark Community Education Convention” held over two days this weekend. Baraka hosted a variety of stakeholders – from community activists to charter school leaders to foundation funders – to encourage what he called a citywide dialogue about Newark’s schools.
The centerpiece of Baraka’s agenda has been the end of the state’s 20-year control of the city’s public schools. While he continued to press that case this weekend, the players who probably matter most in making that decision were notably absent from the conference held at Bethany Baptist Church and Rutgers-Newark.
Neither state-appointed schools Superintendent Cami Anderson or any of her senior staff were on hand, even though Baraka said they were repeatedly invited to the event.
Nonetheless, Anderson’s icy relationship with the community has emboldened the mayor even more in pressing an issue that has worked well for him during his first year as mayor of New Jersey’s largest city.
Baraka’s criticism of Anderson and her One Newark reorganization plan was arguably the issue that resonated most in his election win last year.
And the issue has since played to his strength as a long-time educator in the city, while deflecting attention from some of the tougher issues facing Newark, including its dire municipal finances and continued crime woes.
The former principal of the Central High School, Baraka is especially adept at discussing the challenges and needs facing his city’s schools, and that was on full display on Saturday.
He spoke without notes to the conference about needs in the classrooms that go beyond a single teacher, the weight of poverty on teaching and learning, and what happens to dropouts after they give up on school.
Afterward, he talked one-on-one with a mother about how her son was doing in school, and promised to call him directly. There was little doubt that he would keep his promise.
Yet for all those personal connections, the mayor acknowledged in an interview that his power over the schools lies more in words than action.
“Part of it has been accomplished, that we are bringing people together in one room who normally are not talking to each other,” he said of the day’s conference, which included participants as diverse as the Newark Teachers Union and the Newark Charter Schools Fund.
“That has not happened for years,” he said.
Yet for all the talk of civil dialogue, his next statement could hardly be called restrained: “We are building a strategy for the schools, in spite of One Newark, and planning for the day when we are freed off the plantation.”
He has certainly sought to use his public prominence to maximum effect. In addition to the summit this weekend, Baraka has taken the high-profile step of announcing that he had sent a letter to President Barack Obama about the plight of Newark schools under state control. And if anyone missed that, he wrote and published op-ed in The New York Times on the same theme.
But has it had much effect? Baraka said on Saturday that he knows he’s at least been heard. After his letter to the White House, he said, there have been conversations with federal officials – although not with the president himself. And he said he knows state officials are listening.
“We are going to keep at it,” Baraka said. “It’s like the story of the miners who hit the rocks 20 times, it is the 21st time when the rock cracks.”
“None of this falls on deaf ears,” Baraka added. “I think the governor is listening, the legislators are listening, and the commissioner is listening. I don’t know if they are necessarily doing something immediately, but they are being affected by the dialogue that is happening in Newark.
“As tough as the governor appears to be, I know he is hearing what is happening in the city and someday he will have to make a decision that is not based on politics.”
Until then, Baraka said that he is not looking for direct control of the schools. If and when the state is ready to transition back to local control, he said he would support having an elected school board instead of one appointed by the mayor.
“There are many mayors who don’t have formal powers,” he said. “I don’t want a direct power over the schools. It should be an elected school board.
“But my role will be the same, to influence public policy as it relates to schools, to make the community safer, to support families, and bring all the stakeholders together like we are doing today.”
As for Anderson, Baraka said he last spoke with the superintendent a couple of weeks ago at an event held at West Side High School. He said they had a conversation, and that they are always cordial.
“I don’t hate her,” the mayor said. “I just don’t agree with her.”