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Opinion: Moving Beyond Good versus Evil in Newark School-Reform Debate

Ras Baraka hasn’t just cooled the campaign rhetoric, he’s proven that he knows the value of eclectic and diversified approaches to a troubled school system

laura waters
Laura Waters

During the 2014 battle for Newark’s mayoral seat, contender Ras Baraka was portrayed by his supporters as a new-age Spartacus, a noble warrior for oppressed public schools battling privatization-crazed Wall Street oligarchs. The Nation gasped, “Baraka will Reclaim New Jersey’s Largest City From Charter Schools and Wall Street!” Blue Jersey snarked, “hedge-fund manager making money off our schools -- they all support [Shavar] Jeffries,” Baraka’s opponent. After Baraka won, the union-affiliated NJ Working Families super PAC gushed, “Baraka Win a Big Blow to Corporate Education Reform.”

It’s the classic archetype of good versus evil: beloved neighborhood schools beset by amoral money-grubbing reformers. The problem here is that what works for campaign lampoonery doesn’t work on the ground, especially when a former teacher and principal, now the leader of New Jersey’s largest city, appears sincere about improving a long-dysfunctional school system.

Earlier this month the New York Times ran a front-page article on the mayor’s governing style and concluded that “the radical now looks like a radical pragmatist.” The same could be said for Baraka’s approach to the Newark City Public Schools. Anyone who disdains the value of eclectic and diversified approaches to troubled school systems has lessons to learn here.

Mayor Baraka was already a local celebrity who served concurrently as a city councilman and principal of the city’s Central High School. Now he’s famous nationally, featured in The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff.

The book, just out last week, analyzes the convoluted politics behind a proposed transformation of the Newark school system funded by a $100 million grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The grant was actually only a little more than 10 percent of Newark schools’ annual operating budget.

Nonetheless, it was intended to address the sordid state of the district that, said Russakoff, was in a condition of “fiscal ruin, massive overcapacity, and in urgent need of improvement.”

In 2010, the year of Zuckerberg’s bequest, 60 percent of third- through eighth-grade students could not do math or read at grade level, despite expenditures of $22,300 per student per year. The high school graduation rate was 50 percent. At principal Baraka’s Central High, not a single student got a 1550 or better on the three-part SAT, a score considered a threshold for college and career-readiness.

Russakoff recounts that “in public [Baraka] blamed poor student performance on oppression and poverty, assigning no responsibility to teachers and principals.” However,

“[I]nside Central High School Baraka was more pragmatic educator than strident politician.”

For example, Baraka “mounted an aggressive turnaround strategy, using some of the instructional techniques pioneered by the reform movement. He said he was particularly influenced by a superintendent in a high-poverty district in Colorado who was trained by philanthropist Eli Broad’s leadership academy -- an arm of the ‘conspiracy’ Baraka the politician inveighed against.”

“I stole ideas from everywhere,” he said. With a federal school improvement grant, he extended the school day, introduced small learning academies, integrated art and drama into academic classes, greatly intensified test preparation, and hired consultants to coach teachers in literacy instruction.”

Baraka told Russakoff that “he often found tenure a headache, saddling students with weak teachers … He thought teachers should receive raises for performance, not longevity, as enshrined in the current union contract -- exactly what Zuckerberg was then advocating.” And, while he “vehemently” professed his opposition to charter schools, “later he would soften that view as well.”

This past spring, before the departure of Cami Anderson and the state’s commitment to a return to local control, Baraka joined the Newark Teachers Union in supporting student sit-ins and protesting district changes. He sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to stop the “disruptive and illegal education reforms” perpetrated by Anderson.

Yet in September Baraka worked with Education Reform Now, Teach For America, the Foundation for Newark's Future (which manages allocation of the Facebook grant), and the Newark Charter School Fund to give away 5,000 backpacks and other school supplies. In a joint appearance at Rutgers with then-Chicago union president Karen Lewis, “Baraka cautioned the audience against believing city activists are opposed all education reform initiatives,” adding, “our kids deserve the best ideas.”

This synergistic approach -- use what works, toss what doesn’t -- bodes well for Newark’s successful transition to local control. That good vs. evil meme may have played well during the election, but reductionist ideology is incompatible with sound public policy.

Take school choice, one of the tenets of education reform and increasingly popular in Newark: last year about 30 percent of the city’s 43,000 students chose to enroll in charters and that percentage is projected to rise to 40 percent over the next few years. The trend is especially strong among black families; Newark’s charters now enroll 50 percent of black students.

Meanwhile, bull-headed leaders from Newark Teachers Union screech, “NO to more charter schools -- YES TO TRADITIONAL PUBLIC SCHOOLS! “

Baraka appears ready to rise above this Manichaean artifice that quickly seduced a mayor just across the Hudson River, Bill de Blasio. Baraka also has an able partner in new Superintendent Chris Cerf, who is a powerful advocate for educational equity. They both know that petty distinctions impede children and a diverse educational landscape adds value. We can all learn from that, reformers and unionists alike.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Spotlight and other publications. She also blogs at NJ Left Behind and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 10 years.

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