Chris Christie and The Death of Hope in Newark

Diane Ravitch has a fascinating post up for those who follow both education “reform” and New Jersey politics. The post is by Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University and noted expert on urban education. What’s most interesting about Noguera’s piece, to me, is how it confirms many suspicions I’ve had about how education has become politicized under the administration of Governor Chris Christie.

Noguera documents the demise of a three-year program to reduce the dropout rate in Newark: the Global Village Zone. As NJ Spotlight recently reported, GVZ was an attempt to address education reform on a more comprehensive scale:

The idea was to focus intensely on the needs of students and families at the city’s Central High School and its six feeder elementary/middle schools. There would be longer school days, summer classes, health clinics, and access to healthy food for the zone’s 3,500 students, in addition to extensive professional development for teachers and principals to improve academics.

“We’re going to give them every opportunity to succeed,” then-Superintendent Clifford Janey told The Times. “We’re going to get out of the way when necessary and enable leadership to grow and flourish.” [emphasis mine]

Unfortunately, the program really never stood a chance: GVZ was the victim of anemic support when former Newark superintendent Clifford Janey was “drummed out” of office in 2010 to make room for the current superintendent, Cami Anderson.

Understand that GVZ was conceived in fall of 2009, just before Jon Corzine lost the governorship to Christie. While Corzine was certainly the one who opened the door for the concept, the real work didn’t start until the spring of 2010 – after Christie had been sworn in. Noguera picks up the story – note a key detail I highlight below:

For the next three years, we worked assiduously at building the GVZ infrastructure and improve the schools. It wasn’t easy. We were under staffed and were working with seven schools that had a long record of under-performance. We took on several of the functions normally carried out by district officials such as providing professional development for teachers and administrators, and conducting workshops for parents. Nonetheless, with a small staff headed by Dr. Lauren Wells, we accomplished a great deal. We signed an agreement with the Newark Teachers Union to allow for a longer school day, we implemented a free book drive to insure that children had access to reading material over the summer, we held summer institutes for staff on instructional leadership, and gradually began to create the zone we had envisioned. Despite our limitations, we had an enormous amount of buy-in and support from the leadership and staff of the seven schools, the parents and the broader community. Our greatest progress was achieved at Central High School, which in the spring of 2010 had been designated chronically under-performing by the State of New Jersey and received a School Improvement Grant to support turnaround efforts (SIG). After its first year, student test scores in language arts increased 32.5% and 25% in math. State officials told us that the progress being achieved at the school under the leadership of Ras Baraka the principal, was unmatched by any other turn around school in the state ( [emphasis mine]

So there was a broad consensus of agreement among all stakeholders – including the teachers union. Why is this important?

Because the spring of 2010 was when Christie decide to go to war with teachers and their unions. I know this well, because I started my blog as a direct result of the outrageous behavior and incendiary statements against unions I saw coming from Chris Christie at exactly this time.

In 2010, Christie was running around the state demanding that local unions reopen their contracts and freeze teacher pay. He claimed he could solve the budget crisis and avoid cuts in state aid if the greedy teachers would just relent, even though the Office of Legislative Services later revealed that was a blatant lie (really, it was ridiculous on its face: you can’t make up for a cut in revenues with a freeze on spending).

He claimed union leaders were publicly calling for teachers to “pray for my death” – again, another lie, and a particularly brazen one. He lobbed insults at union officials and teachers that were unprecedented in their nasty and personal tone. Famously, he got into a public tiff with Marie Corfield, an art teacher who dared to stand up to him (and was subsequently targeted by reformy lobbyists B4K for her uppity ways when she ran for Assembly).

So Christie was staking out an anti-teacher, anti-union position in 2010. But that wasn’t the biggest education story in New Jersey that year: that summer, the state lost out on $400 million in federal funding when a faulty application was submitted for the Race To The Top grants.

The reason why the application was faulty remains one of the great underreported stories of the Christie era:

This past spring, the teachers union negotiated, in good faith, an agreement with Education Commissioner Bret Schundler that produced an RTTT application that both sides could agree on. But radio personality Jim Gearhart of NJ 101.5 – a consistent critic of the NJEA (“New Jersey Extortion Association” is his idea of wit) – objected to the deal and blasted Christie publicly. This prompted Christie to immediately denounce the deal, embarrass Schundler, and order a hasty rewrite of the application without the consent of the NJEA.

There’s little doubt that Gearhart’s rant was the impetus for Christie’s reneging on the deal; he went on Gearhart’s show immediately afterward and apologized for making the original deal with the union. Nor is there any doubt Christie himself insisted on rewriting the application: he publicly embarrassed Schundler and thoroughly distanced himself from the original application.

The NJEA has released the original application, and it’s clear the error was created during the hurried rewrite by Christie’s staff over the Memorial Day weekend. But it’s wrong to describe the error as “clerical”: this wasn’t the case of putting an answer in the wrong place on the form.

As dennismcgrath at Blue Jersey has shown, the error is unquestionably deliberate. The original text from the application agreed to by the NJEA and Schundler is nowhere to be found in the final version, and the incorrect answer from the new text is nowhere to be found in the NJEA draft. This was not a cut-and-paste mistake.

That’s right: Christie tanked the Race To The Top application because he didn’t want to be seen working productively with the teachers unions. See the pattern? Christie put the RTTT application in jeopardy because he was afraid of looking like he was collaborating with the unions. And now we see that GVZ was doomed because it was, in part, a collaboration with the unions. In other words, Chris Christie made sure to tank any policy that might have had teachers union support.

By 2011, Bret Schundler, who had tried to work with the teachers unions, was out as the Education Commissioner, a scapegoat for Christie’s ideologically fueled incompetence in the RTTT application. It was Schundler who confirmed that Christie spiked the application because he didn’t want to work with the unions:

“We have an opportunity to win here, with union support, which is a rare thing,” Schundler said he told Christie. “He said he didn’t care about the money … He said he hadn’t gone through hell with (the NJEA) so he could then cave in to them now.”

Replacing Schundler was Chris Cerf, a failed education privatizer and charter school cheerleader. And since Newark’s schools remained under state control, Cerf replaced Janey and appointed his former colleague in New York City, Cami Anderson, as the superintendent.

With all the new players in place, the fix to destroy GVZ was in:

In January of 2011 we learned that Clifford Janey’s contract would not be renewed and a search for a new superintendent was launched soon thereafter. Cami Anderson, an educator whom I knew and supported based on her work with some of the most disadvantaged schools in New York City, was named the new superintendent in May of 2011. Though she and I had spoken on the telephone prior to her appointment about Newark’s schools, after her appointment our contact was minimal, and we only met in person on only one occasion. It’s not clear that she ever fully understood what the Global Village Zone was or what we were trying to accomplish. In the spring of 2012 she announced a major overhaul of the school district that would result in the closure of several under-enrolled, low performing schools, three of which were located in the central ward. She did this before approximately 1,000 parents in a large auditorium at Rutgers University, and after making her announcement, exited out the back door without taking any questions from those assembled.

With so much change underway and with a growing recognition that the BBA work with the Global Village Zone needed to be aligned with the district’s goals, we applied to become an Education Management Organization (EMO) in the hope that this would provide us with the funding and district level support we needed to carry out our work. Following Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s donation of 100 million dollrs to support school reform in Newark, there was considerably more private money available for school improvement. We hoped that with district support we might gain access to some of these resources in the central ward. However, our proposal was rejected twice based on concerns that we lacked the capacity to carry out the work we proposed to do. At this point our funders were becoming increasingly concerned that the GVZ could not be viable if the district did not support its goals. With great reluctance, we decided to suspend our work with the GVZ schools because we lacked the resources to continue and because it was clear that the district did not support our efforts.

Well, of course GVZ lacked the capacity: they had dared to work with the unions. Cerf and Anderson, using money from both Mark Zuckerberg and California billionaire Eli Broad, began a program of charter expansion. They had no need for a collaborative, broad-based approach to reform that attempted to save public schools by seeking had buy-in from both the community and the teachers; they were looking to replace the entire system with charters.

Now, some may say that the last year of the Christie administration contradicts my tale. After all, Christie did work together with the unions to pass TEACHNJ, a new teacher evaluation law. And the  Newark teachers union worked with Anderson, Cerf, and Christie to negotiate a new contract. Don’t these events prove Christie is willing to overcome his political instincts to work with teachers unions when necessary?

Absolutely not; in fact, quite the opposite.

Christie held the TEACHNJ bill for months after it passed the legislature, refusing to sign it into law. Why? He was waiting to hear whether he was Mitt Romney’s choice to run for vice-president. If Romney had given him the nod, he would have followed his marching orders, whatever those were. But when he realized he had been passed by, he made the decision to tack to the center to set himself up for another term as governor. Christie held up the TEACHNJ bill as a political calculation.

The Newark contract was part of that calculation as well, but it wound up being even better for Christie: he finally got a merit pay deal, mostly because he dealt with the AFT, and not the NJEA. NJEA is the larger union in New Jersey and has always been Christie’s preferred enemy. AFT has shown itself to be more willing to give in to reformy ideology. The Newark contract may be bad public policy, but it gave Christie needed “centrist” credibility when he needed it the most.

In both cases – as in the GVZ and RTTT episodes – the outcomes make one thing abundantly clear:

Chris Christie consistently uses education “reform” as a political weapon. He never makes a decision on education policy on the basis of what is best for public schools and their students; he makes decisions based solely on their political outcomes.

Remember, this is Christie’s totally awesome education plan:

Q. And is tenure reform the most important part of that?

A. I see tenure, merit pay and OSA as a bundle. I’d like to see them all go together. By repairing the tenure system, we’ll be able to get rid of some ineffective teachers, but then we’ve got to get effective ones in there and it’s going to be years and years. So that’s why I think OSA is such an important part, and increasing charter schools in urban areas, so that those kids don’t get lost while the fixes of tenure and merit pay are fixing the system in a 10-year horizon.

This is an education plan that is not pro-student; it is, first and foremost, anti-union. It is an education “agenda” that is not based in research; it is grounded in politics.

Over and over, Chris Christie has shown he cares more about making savvy political maneuvers than he does about helping students. Pedro Noguera gives us yet another example, but it’s all simply part of a pattern. No one should doubt what the real Christie agenda is: he has already killed hope in Newark once before to meet his own ends, and he will, if necessary, do it again.

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