Baraka is currently in a two-man race for mayor of Newark; in my view, it's probably the most interesting political contest in the country between now and the mid-term Congressional elections (yes, this Jersey boy is biased). Baraka's opponent, Shavar Jeffries, has become the de facto choice of the North Jersey political machine -- the same Democrats who have aligned themselves with Republican Governor Chris Christie.
The head of the Essex Democrats is a fellow named Joseph DiVincenzo, although everyone calls him "Joe D." He outright endorsed Christie before Bridgegate; now, he's got egg on his face (but not enough, apparently, to keep the Democratic state infrastructure from lining up to support him). But there's more to the Newark race than a simple power play.
Education has emerged as the biggest issue, and the reign of State Superintendent Cami Anderson has galvanized support in the city for a return to local control. Bob Braun, who knows Jersey politics better than anyone, puts the mayoral race and Newarks' schools into context:
As usual, Bob gets right to the heart of the matter: under Anderson, the Newark Public Schools are being turned over to private interests. The only way to stop that is to put pressure on Anderson and demand a return to local control; remember, NPS has now been under state rule for 19 years, and the elected school board has no say over operations or administrative personnel.
But there's another twist: one of DiVincenzo's most prominent proteges is State Senator Teresa Ruiz, chairperson of the education committee. Ruiz was the architect of TEACHNJ, the tenure "reform" bill that, rightly or wrongly, has given Christie the ability to claim his education schemes are bipartisan. Ruiz has shown more than a little buyer's remorse about how Christie is implementing TEACHNJ; now she and the other Christiecrats must be looking at Anderson's increasingly unpopular One Newark plan -- which calls for school closings and charter takeovers -- and worrying about how to give themselves some distance away from it.
So what we have is a race between Baraka -- who stands firmly against state control, Anderson, and One Newark -- and Jeffries, who, like Ruiz and the rest of Joe D's Democratics, has to somehow perform the magic trick of showing sympathy to the concerns of parents who reject One Newark and toeing the party line.
So far, Jeffries has meekly intoned that there should be at least a temporary halt to One Newark. His criticisms of Anderson and her plan have been tepid, at best:
"We can't have a small number of people in Trenton decide what is best for our children, and when and if they will engage our community," said Jeffries, a former Newark school board member. "People have to decide what ethos they want in the people they represent. That's one of the things we have to decide tonight.No word on what Jeffries thinks is "good" in the One Newark plan.
"There is too much in the One Newark plan at once. You can't identify what works," Jeffries continued. "There are some good things in the plan, but we can't be closing eight to twelve schools all at the same time. The superintendent needs to do better. If not, we have to get a new superintendent."
Jeffries added that the relationship between Newark's public educational leadership should be similar to "a good marriage."
"Even the best of marriages end up in divorce," Baraka replied. "If we say we have to get rid of bad teachers, why cant we say we have to get rid of a bad superintendent? It doesn't make sense to me."
The reaction to Baraka's criticism's of the NPS-state administration has been predictable -- especially in the op-ed pages of the reformy Star-Ledger:
Newark will elect a new mayor in May, and that has fueled tensions as well. Ras Baraka, a city councilman and high school principal, is the favorite to win and the biggest threat to Anderson’s reforms. He has no credible reform plan of his own, but has scored points by fanning resentment against Anderson. Meanwhile, the president of the school advisory committee, Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, has failed to even keep order at public meetings, making it impossible for Anderson to make her case.But, as usual, the S-L spoke too soon -- which brings us back to this past Monday, when I and several other edu-bloggy types met with Baraka before he unveiled his education blueprint for Newark. The first thing you need to know about Baraka's education plan is that it was actually written by people who know what the hell they are talking about. That's a refreshing change from what we usually get in Jersey these days, especially from outlets like the S-L op-ed page.
Baraka himself is a veteran teacher and principal; at Central High, he formed community partnerships that helped to boost the graduation rate by 30%*. Baraka brags that, in a "choice" environment, he's managed to keep the enrollment high at his school without resorting -- as many of the charters have -- to putting out ads on billboards and buses.
His three coauthors are also veteran educators. Antoinette "Toni" Baskerville-Richardson is a 30-year NPS teacher who currently serves as the school board president. Dr. Janice Johnson Dias is a sociology professor at CUNY/John Jay College. Dr. Lauren Wells is at NYU, Director of the Broader Bolder Approach in Education.
Listening to these three insightful, experienced, highly-educated women, followed by Baraka, it became clear to me that the biggest problem that we have in American education today is that people who know what they are talking about are too often not given a voice.
Baskerville-Richardson gave an exegesis on the history of NPS that laid bare the utter failure of the state to live up to its promises to Newark's children. Wells made a compelling case, replete with research, about the effects of poverty on education and how schools must be part of a larger, systemic response. Johnson Dias's sociological perspective explained how a sense of "relatedness" is critical for underserved minority children to have any sense of accomplishment within their school system.
These women weren't selling a quick, reformy fix. They didn't attempt to insult the intelligence of their audience by saying that "poverty is an excuse." They didn't distort the data to show that closing schools, characterization, and test-based teacher evaluation will somehow solve the problems of urban education. Instead, they told the truth about the hard, difficult work ahead of the next mayor of Newark -- and Baraka has clearly listened.
I'll talk some more about Baraka and his plan in a bit, but let me end for now with this:
Our national education dialog has, for the most part, marginalized the very people we should be listening to the most: educators and education researchers. Instead, we allow hacks, snake oil salesmen, political "chess players," think-tanky types, willingly obtuse pundits, and shamelessly hypocritical politicians to dominate the debate.
It speaks volumes about Ras Baraka's true commitment to Newark's children that he has cast these educational tourists aside in favor of those who have made it their life's work to either teach children or understand the dynamics that shape their lives. That alone ought to be enough for the good people of Newark to cast their vote for Baraka.
More in a bit.
Ras Baraka: a fellow public school educator and public school parent.
* This is from my notes, but I think Baraka might have meant "30 percentage points," not 30 percent. You know me: I'll look into it...