|5-13-13 Star Ledger - Support Slipping for Newark's School Chief|
Star Ledger column - Moran: Support slipping for Cami Anderson, Newark's schools chief "...The school advisory committee recently cast a vote of no confidence. Not to be outdone, the city council passed a resolution opposing all reforms during the next school year.You read that right: Not a single change through the 2013-2014 school year. A complete freeze."
Do I think I’ve been perfect? Of course not. - Cami Anderson, Newark superintendent. In her second year as superintendent of schools in Newark, Cami Anderson is watching her political support in the city collapse.
The school advisory committee recently cast a vote of no confidence. Not to be outdone, the city council passed a resolution opposing all reforms during the next school year.
You read that right: Not a single change through the 2013-2014 school year. A complete freeze.
This council has a long history of crazy behavior. It pays itself the highest council salaries in the state, and each member is entitled to a free car, as well. One councilman compared the charter school movement to the Tuskegee experiments when black men were secretly infected with syphilis to study the progress of the disease. When a council meeting last year broke down in chaos, police had to spray mace to restore order.
But this should be remembered as its craziest moment of all. And it underscores what a tragedy it would be for students if the state yields control anytime soon.
Nearly half the kids in Newark drop out before graduating high school. The city council wants to do nothing about that for a full year.
The best charter schools have waiting lists that stretch into the thousands. The council wants Anderson to block any expansions — and even bar the charter schools from even using empty classrooms in district schools.
Anderson has closed down the worst schools and opened innovative new ones in their place, with new staff and expanded hours. No more of that.
She is staring at a $56 million deficit, and the resolution says she should not reduce staff at all, even in the bloated central office. No one has suggested how that might be possible.
“This paternalistic attitude the state has towards Newark has to end,” says Councilman Ras Baraka, who is running for mayor next year. “We’re saying you are making too many moves and you have to stop until it is reviewed.”
Anderson seems frustrated but undaunted. The knock on her is that she has an imperial style, that she alienates people who could be natural allies in the reform movement and the business community, and that she too often goes public with her plans only after they are set in concrete.
She objects to most of that, but says the real political problem in Newark is that she’s getting so little help. She wants to focus on things like training principals, while others lend a hand on the politics.
“Do I think I’ve been perfect? Of course not,” she says. “But you do have to create some space to ensure that professional expertise is the main driver when you’re making decisions on things like curriculum.”
Next year’s mayor’s race is the backdrop to all this. Baraka is positioned as the hard-core opponent of Anderson’s style of reform. Councilman Anibal Ramos, another likely candidate, voted for the resolution, but now says it was an honest mistake, that he had not read it and meant only to oppose the first round of layoffs.
“Cami has to engage us more to be partners,” he says. “But I do not support a freeze on all new initiatives.”
But the best hope for education reform is Shavar Jeffries, who sat on the school committee until recently. Unlike Ramos, he has been an outspoken advocate for years of the type of reforms Anderson is pushing. To him, the problem is that reformers need to knock on more doors, to explain to parents why these reforms are good for kids.
“We can all do better on that,” he says. “When you are at war for kids, there is no such thing as a sideline.”
Anderson makes an easy political target. She is a white woman from out of town in a proud majority-black city that is notoriously suspicious of newcomers. Resentment against state control was simmering when she arrived. And her reforms cost some people their jobs, a challenge for any urban superintendent.
The Christie administration is certain to keep control of the schools, especially after this latest display. The state constitution places responsibility for educating children on the state, not on the locals. That’s the basis of the Abbott lawsuits that force the state to pay for more than 80 percent of the city’s school costs.
The problem is the longer term. “To think that over the long haul the state will ignore the elected representatives of the people of Newark, that’s just not going to happen,” says Jeffries.
There is the rub. The state has Anderson’s back for now. But if this political collapse isn’t reversed at some point, the reform project in this city will collapse as well.
Tom Moran may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-5728. Follow him on Twitter at @tomamoran.
Garden State Coalition of Schools