I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reality Leaves Newark and Invades Rick Hess's Happy, Shiny World

As all New Jersey edunerds know by now, Newark's State Superintendent, Cami Anderson, was scheduled to appear at the right-wing "think" tank AEI to discuss her tenure this past week. She turned tail and ran, however, when a group of Newark students showed up at the event, threatening to make their voices heard.

Via Mike Klonsky, we now learn that AEI's Rick Hess has come down with the vapors at the thought of these "rabble-rousers" (yes, those are Hess's exact words for a group of Newark students) daring to invade his corporatist sanctum:
Ironically, the event came about because I'd raised some questions about Newark school reform. I wrote an Ed Week op-ed back during the summer that suggested Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to Newark was in many ways a cautionary tale of the mistakes that philanthropists make. In the course of that piece, I was indirectly critical of some of what Newark has been doing. Anderson, a friend who has been superintendent of New Jersey's largest school system since 2011, argued that my depiction of Newark was unfair and inaccurate. We discussed all of this and agreed that the school district hadn't done a great job of sharing some of what she was telling me. So, I invited her to come down to AEI, offer her perspective and some of the results from Newark, and talk about the lessons being learned. [emphasis mine]
Golly, whatever could have made anyone think that Hess wouldn't ask tough, pointed questions of his "friend"?

Mike, as we would expect, deals with Hess's outrage perfectly:
A real policy debate would have taken place BEFORE the schools were closed and privatized, not after the fact. Parents and community were excluded from the debate then and they were excluded (not invited) to the debate by AEI. Instead they made their voices heard the best way they could. They were heard again last May, in the city's mayoral election when they elected Mayor Baraka, a militant opponent of Anderson's and of "One Newark". And yet the program remains.

Hess should know that people still have the right to protest against oppressive government policies, while those bureaucrats enforcing those policies still have the right to run and hide from the community.

It's a free country.
Amen. But let me take this a bit further:

Rather than waste an opportunity to allow her to justify herself to the world, Hess brought Anderson into a closed room at AEI and let her tape a hour-long infomercial extolling her virtues.

Because your Jazzman loves you and wants you to be happy, I watched the entire thing so you don't have to (ain't I swell?). Hess, naturally, goes very easy on his "friend," allowing her every opportunity to sell both her One Newark plan and her own "fierce"* commitment to reform.

But here are a few things that Hess and Anderson didn't bother to discuss:

- Repeatedly, Anderson contends that her critics are quite small in number, and that there are many more people who support her and One Newark than reality might suggest.

Let's take a moment, then, to review who is in this "small group" that doesn't support Anderson or her "reforms":

  • Mayor Ras Baraka, who was elected in a race that became largely a referendum on Anderson.
  • His opponent, Shavar Jeffries, who lost because, even though he criticized Anderson, didn't go as far as Baraka by calling for her removal.
  • The Newark City Council, which called for a moratorium on all of Anderson's initiatives.
  • The Newark School Board, which, though powerless to remove her (we'll get to that in a minute), voted "no confidence" in Anderson's leadership and has tried to freeze her pay.
  • The students of Newark's schools, who have walked out repeatedly to protest her actions.
  • Parents who have filed a civil rights lawsuit, alleging One Newark is "de facto racial segregation." (It is.)
  • The teachers union, which claims Anderson has repeatedly refused to follow through on the provisions of the contract she negotiated.
  • 77 of Newark's religious leaders, who have said One Newark could be "catastrophic" and must not be implemented.
I wish I could force Hess to read the statement from these pastors:
There are many well-educated, reasonable minded, and rational
individuals, parents, educators and citizens in general in the City of Newark.
They all share an intense passion for excellence in education; they have
come to feel that their input and voice have been repeatedly ignored. It is
unfair to characterize Newarkers opposing the current approach to change as
irrational and resistant to change in any case. Many voices of reason have
been largely denied meaningful input into the decision-making process. [emphasis mine]
The notion that Anderson's critics are a small group of "rabble rousers" is both offensive and incorrect. That she continues to insist the opposite is a sign of either denial or contempt. That Hess accepted her at her word is a sign of intellectual torpor.

- Anderson tries hard to get Hess to believe that she really does meet with the community: she has coffees with them, dontcha know! And conversations in the grocery store (does Anderson live in Newark?)! Parents hug her!

What she didn't bother to mention -- and what Hess forgot to ask about -- is the fact that Anderson has stopped attending school board meetings, an action that, while perhaps not technically in violation of the state takeover law, is certainly in violation of its spirit.

Anderson has also repeatedly refused to answer the summons of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools of the NJ Legislature, a slap in the face of the state's taxpayers if there ever was one. Her boss, Chris Christie, has refused to hold one of his taxpayer-financed propaganda festivals "town halls" in Newark, denying citizens there the opportunity to question him about Anderson's leadership.

Citizens from Newark had to travel to Washington, D.C. to question Anderson because she refuses to meet with their elected representatives in their own hometown.

Maybe if Anderson would show up every now and then at a board meeting, the "rabble rousers" wouldn't have felt the need to invade Rick Hess's happy, shiny, libertarian world.

- In his post, Hess references an earlier piece where he claims he is "indirectly critical of some of what Newark has been doing." Actually, he spends most of that piece doing what Rick Hess does best: arguing that spending more money on urban school districts is a waste.

I guess current research on school finances gets into AEI about as often as students from Newark. Because the truth is that, quoting Bruce Baker: "There exists an increasing body of evidence that substantive and sustained state school finance reforms matter for improving both the level and distribution of short-term and long-run student outcomes."

I know it's hard for Rick to let go of his Hanushekian fantasies about "efficiencies," but the truth is that Newark has had to scratch and claw for every penny it gets for its schools, and it's still not enough.

Even Anderson admits her district is having a rough time of it fiscally. But did Hess bother to raise the issue of whether Newark gets adequate funding from the state?


- Finally: maybe Hess should have thought a bit about how people who are disenfranchised act before trying to blame them for attempting to make their voices heard:

The whole point of public debate in a free nation is that reasonable people routinely disagree with one another. They're going to have different concerns, know different things, and look at facts in different ways. That's why I seek to provide a forum where leaders and thinkers can make their case, whether I agree with them or not. Over the years, I've hosted "reformers" including the likes of Arne Duncan, Rod Paige, Joel Klein, Kaya Henderson, Michelle Rhee, John Deasy, Jim Shelton, John White, Deb Gist, Howard Fuller, and Campbell Brown. I've hosted those who come at things very differently, such as Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, Dennis van Roekel, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, Debbie Meier, Carol Burris, Kevin Welner, and Larry Cuban. In my mind, this is part of what think tanks are for. In all of that time, through a slew of controversial personalities, we have never encountered a group so dead-set on trying to stop someone from simply being heard as this coterie from Newark.
So why might that be, Rick? Why would Newarkers feel so put out about Cami Anderson when your list of reformy all-stars here all showed up at AEI with nary a peep from the "rabble rousers"? What could possibly account for this unseemly outburst of free speech?

Say what you will about Michelle Rhee: at least when Mayor Adrian Fenty got the boot from DC's voters, she went out the door along with him. When Bill de Blasio became mayor of NYC, he knew he'd better not appoint another Joel Klein to run the schools there, or he'd anger his base. John Deasy was accountable to an elected board of the LAUSD, which is why the elections are so intense (and expensive).

In all of these cases, the citizens of these school districts could use their vote to express their approval or disapproval of the current management of their schools. But there's no way any taxpayer in Newark can affect the continuing tenure of Cami Anderson through his or her vote.

The good people of Newark, NJ, have no say in how their schools are run; is it any wonder, then, that they must raise their voices to be heard?

Newark has been under state control for two decades. The voters of Newark roundly rejected Chris Christie twice, and yet he and he alone gets to decide who manages NPS. There is no plan in place to move the district back to democratic, local control; no one in the state has been held accountable for the failure to return the schools to the people of Newark.

You think it's bad having a few students come into your offices and blow some whistles, Rick? Imagine what it's like, then, having to pay taxes to support a school system where you have no ability to shape policy or determine personnel through the exercise of your democratic rights.

As a "conservative," you of all people, Rick, should be infuriated by the clearly racist policy of denying people of color control over their local education system. You of all people should be standing up and demanding the state immediately develop and execute a plan to return the rights of self-determination enjoyed by nearly every other community in New Jersey to the people of Newark.

I'm sorry that "rabble rousers" bringing a dose of reality down I-95 from Newark is so perturbing to you, Rick. But when you deny people their rights, things tend to get a little messy. Something to think about next time AEI wants to deny a few students a chance to be heard by their unelected school leader.

"Rabble rousers"?! Here?!

* If you're in a mood for a drinking game, try this: one shot for every time Anderson uses the word "fierce." You'll be passed out by the time the vid is over, guaranteed.

ADDING: Looks like Peter Greene and I once again wrote the same thing:
When people with money and power feel they aren't being heard, they also raise the volume. But because they have money and power, they can raise the volume by spending $12 million to set up slick websites, or establishing "advocacy groups" to push their agenda out through their connections, or having polite luncheon dates. If Bill Gates thinks people aren't really hearing what he has to say about education, he gets out his checkbook or makes some phone calls.

Ordinary folks like the citizens of Newark don't have that option. They can't drop a few million dollars on an ad campaign or make some quick calls to highly-placed people of power and influence. When people without money, power or status want to raise the volume to be heard, they don't have any options except literally raising the volume and getting loud and unruly and even obnoxious. And then we can cue the complaints about their tone and rudeness and general misbehavior. Why they can't just be quiet and polite and unheard? Goodness!

The fact is, civil discourse is great-- if you have money and power and connections to back it up. Wouldn't it be interesting to go back in time to, say, that meeting between David Coleman and Gene Wilhoit and Bill Gates, and to say, "Gentlemen, you may pursue your dreams of an educational overhaul of this nation. But you must do it on a budget of $1.95, and you can't call any of your powerful friends to help you out. All you can use is a free blog and talking to people you can convince to listen to you."

"Let's all calm down and try to speak nicely," are the words of the people with power. "Listen to me RIGHT NOW DAMMIT," are the words of the powerless, unheard, and frustrated. 

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