Christie’s Warning to Newark Leaders Draws Backlash from Baraka

John Mooney | March 9, 2016 | Education
Governor threatened to ‘run him over’ if city’s mayor continues to oppose more charter schools

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka
Theatrics or not, the charter school wars in Newark heated up this week with Gov. Chris Christie’s visit Monday to a prominent charter network and a not-so-veiled threat that local control of the district won’t come to anyone who blocks their growth.

How much his words matter is another question – the process of returning the Newark district to local control, or any decision not to, is sure to outlast Christie’s expiring term.

But Democratic politicians and other players nevertheless jumped to the Internet yesterday to respond to Christie’s suggestion that the state’s long-sought relinquishing of controls could be jeopardized if the city’s leaders – particularly Mayor Ras Baraka — don’t get in line with the governor’s pro-charter agenda for the city.

Christie said if Baraka continued to oppose the growth of charters, the governor would “run him over” – along with other special interests — and “give pause” to returning local control. Baraka last week had criticized the administration’s approval of new charter expansion, saying it would hurt the district.

Baraka’s office did not respond to requests for interviews yesterday, but it issued a lengthy statement condemning the governor’s comments. Here is the full statement:

“Governor Christie seems to have forgotten that public schools are the foundation of education throughout America. As principal of Central High School, I showed that when parents, teachers, community, students and universities work together, a failing school can be turned around.

“Traditional public school and charter school parents and advocates have united to fight for the funding needed to achieve quality education for all of our children. It is undeniable that the Newark public schools today are improving because people are putting their differences aside and working together.

“I hope decisions around local control are going to be based on fairness, democracy, and the tremendous work we are doing in Newark and not made simply because we don’t share the Governor’s point of view.

“While there are many factions in Newark we are struggling with our differences to provide quality education for all of our students and the one thing we can unite around is that all of us want local control traditional and charter alike. We will continue to fight for REAL choices for our parents and for leadership that is chosen by them.”

Two of the state senators representing the city – both Democrats — joined the chorus, including state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), a former governor.

‘“Stating you will ‘run him over’ is not just an attack on the Mayor, but also the people of Newark and is in no way is a good faith comment that helps the situation,” Codey said in a statement.

Interestingly, one legislator sitting out of the fray yesterday was state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, (D-Essex) who actually was with Christie where he made his remarks at the North Star Academy’s Alexander Street School, although she slipped out before the actual words were spoken.

The two have agreed more often than not on big education issues, including charter schools, as well as teacher tenure and teacher evaluations. Ruiz was the chief architect of the state’s new tenure law, which Christie has repeatedly highlighted as one of his top legislative accomplishments.

But Ruiz has also spoken out on behalf of local control of Newark schools, albeit not yesterday. A request for comment yesterday was not returned.

[related]Still, how much it all matters is open to question, since the process for returning the district to local control is so long and complicated that it may not even begin by the time Christie leaves office.

Christie, in an announcement issued jointly with Baraka, this winter outlined a process in which a local working group would start building the foundation for the transition.

But that transition still relies on the state’s monitoring system, which calls for regular updates on whether the district is meeting a variety of specified criteria having to do with governance, instruction, and other areas.

Newark, at this point, has technically already been returned controls over fiscal matters and personnel, but the key piece is the right to pick its own superintendent, a prospect still at a distance as state-appointed superintendent Chris Cerf remains at the helm.

Under the current regulations, the transition to such powers would take months to even begin, and it would likely require at least another year to determine whether the local governance would be through an elected or appointed school board.