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, July 12, 2014

How White People Rationalize the Unequal Governance Of Schools

A caveat before I begin: you really shouldn't listen to anything that I or any other white, suburban, middle-class person has to say about Camden's schools until you've heard from the good people who work in those schools (like Keith Benson), send their children to those schools (like MoNeke Ragsdale), or actually attend those schools (like Nala Johnson).

Once you've heard from them, you can, if you wish, subject yourself to the opinions of white suburbanites like me -- or Laura Waters:
Every day in Camden, New Jersey, students wake up with just over a 50 percent chance of earning a high school diploma.
This is reality. It is negligence on the part of a school system that has failed families for decades. It has to change.
Yes, it does have to change. Perhaps we could start by addressing the fact that Camden has the lowest per capita income in the state. Or that it has the highest crime rate in the country, a direct result of its current status as an economic wasteland. Or that the economic development that has come into the city is controlled by outsiders and mostly benefits those outsiders, and not the citizens of the city.

You won't hear about this reality when listening to folks like Waters; no, it's the "negligence on the part of a school system that has failed families for decades" that is the problem. Of course, that school system has been, for all intents and purposes, run by the state for over a decade, and any dissent expressed against the South Jersey political machine is simply not tolerated.

It's worth pointing out that Waters is the vice-president of the Lawrence Township Board of Education out in the leafy 'burbs of Mercer County. Had the taxpayers in Waters's town been told that they would have no say in the governance of their schools, there would undoubtedly be an uproar.

But let's save those comparisons for a bit longer, and get back to Waters's prescriptions for what ails Camden:
But over the past year—for the first time in decades—there is real cause for hope for Camden's students. The State of New Jersey has finally lived up to its moral obligation to take action and appointed a new district leader in Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. A child of Iranian immigrants who fled to this country to escape religious persecution, Rouhanifard has unveiled and begun to deliver on a bold and aggressive plan—The Camden Commitment—to dramatically improve the quality of education for all students in Camden.
That is a rather selective history of Rouhanifard's childhood: Waters apparently doesn't know (or doesn't care to share) that Camden's superintendent, once his family emigrated to America, attended one of the most elite and high-spending prep schools in Tennessee -- a school that spends over $40,000 per pupil.

I must have missed the part of the Camden Commitment that called for funding Camden's schools at an equivalent rate. Of course, the good people of Camden have been promised more resources -- like a new school at Lanning Square -- for years. That school was supposed to serve all of the children of Camden, but the powers-that-be decided funding for such things are reserved only for the suburbs.

What Camden got instead are Renaissance Schools, which will be run by private charter school operators who have no obligation to hold to the same standards of transparency and parental rights as public schools.

Those same operators, by the way, have a history of segregation and high rates of student attrition in New Jersey. And they engage in a pedagogy of compliance that simply wouldn't be tolerated by the more affluent parents out in the 'burbs:
Between classes, teachers stand in the hallways ushering students along. Tardiness is not tolerated. Students wear lanyards with cards recording their demerits, including those for lateness. Too many demerits result in a one-hour detention after school. [emphasis mine]
Hey, if shaming students is good enough for Camden and Philadelphia, why not bring it to suburbs like Lawrence? How about it, Laura? Or do you think the schools where parents of color send their children should be fundamentally different from suburban schools?
Education advocates who recognize the urgency of need in Camden typically don't get bogged down talking about bureaucratic processes. In fact, by even taking the time to address these ridiculous claims, we're ceding the higher ground to defenders of a failed bureaucracy, those like Julia Sass Rubin. We're talking about whether x person did y thing in order to comply with z regulation. We're not talking about the reality that Camden students face every day or that next fall several hundred Camden children will get to attend better schools.
Oh, I see: standards of transparency and engaging in democratic processes are privileges enjoyed by some parents and citizens. Following the law, according to reformy folks like Waters, is a luxury the good people of Camden simply can't afford.

Instead, Camden's families have to settle for a phony market system of schools, run by unaccountable operators who have questionable records and political connections, who have never demonstrated they can achieve results any better than the public schools when accounting for differences in student characteristics.

I will let Julia Sass Rubin answer Waters's specific rebuttals of her piece. Let me, instead, end with this observation:

In Camden, and Paterson, and Newark, and Jersey City -- and, for that matter, in New York City and Detroit and New Orleans and Los Angeles and Chicago and in cities all over the country -- the school privatizers, like Waters, have argued that school "choice" is somehow equivalent to democratic control of schools. It is not.

The hard-working citizens of Camden have not had control of their schools or their city for years. The critical decisions that affect their children's lives have been made by political and economic powers that have little to no connection to their city. They didn't make the decision to charterize their school district -- that decision was made for them.

And anyone who pretends they don't know why is lying to themselves.

If the people of Camden want to debate whether that they should have a "choice" system of schools that leeches resources from its public schools and segregates their children by special education need (among other ways), let them have that debate. But let's not pretend that "voting with your feet" is the same thing as democracy. 

The people of Lawrence wouldn't put up with that -- why should the people of Camden?

Democracy for me, not for thee...


Julia said...

Excellent job, as always, Mark!

Here is my comment on Laura Waters' article:

Ms. Waters,

My article http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2014/07/charters_school_networks_and_s.html highlighted illegal and unethical actions by the Camden state-appointed Superintendent and the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains. These entities subverted the Urban Hope law and then relied on political connections and shady legislative maneuvers to change that law, in order to gain market share in Camden for the Mastery and Uncommon charter chains.

Your response did not address the shady legislative maneuvers detailed in my article, so I will limit my comment to violations of the Urban Hope law by Mastery, Uncommon and the Camden Superintendent.

Here are the issues raised in the May 21, 2014 letter that Save Our Schools NJ sent to Commissioner Hespe, which is available here: http://www.saveourschoolsnj.org/2014/05/21/request-to-education-commissioner-to-reject-renaissance-school-applications-in-camden/

“Save Our Schools NJ identified three types of violations of the Urban Hope Act in the Mastery and Uncommon Schools applications:

1) The applications fail to propose new renaissance school facilities or to provide the required information about those facilities.

The Urban Hope Act requires the construction of a new school facility or facilities and documentation and assurances related to the location, construction plans, safety and financing of those facilities.

The Mastery and Uncommon applications to the DOE contain none of the required information, documentation and affirmations.
In fact, the applications make clear that they do not include specific school facility projects for approval at all. Mastery, in its application, baldly states that it “is not including a facilities address in this application” and that they “are open to facilities options provided by the District.” In its application, Uncommon states that “[w]e do not yet have a proposed address for the initial school facility in which Uncommon Camden plans to locate, but can affirm that all Uncommon Camden campus facilities will be located in the required urban campus area.”

2) The applications fail to provide the required opportunity for public input

The Urban Hope Act mandates that applications for renaissance school projects in State-operated school district such as Camden contain “evidence” that the State District Superintendent convened at least three public meetings to discuss the merits of the renaissance school project. The application also must contain written public comments received during those meetings. This mandate is essential to ensure that residents, parents and students in those neighborhoods understand the details of the project the district proposes to construct in partnership with the non-profit entity, and how the new school will serve their children, once the project is completed and operational.

The State Superintendent of Camden failed to include any “evidence” of the required public meetings where “the merits” of the projects were presented and properly considered or to submit any written comments on the projects. This is not surprising as the applications do not contain any of the required information and documentation of the location, description, funding and other elements of the “newly constructed” actual projects as there is no intention by Mastery and Uncommon Schools to build new schools within the time frame required by the Urban Hope Act.

(continued in next comment)

Julia said...

(continued from prior comment)

3) Mastery and Uncommon Schools proposed to house their renaissance schools in temporary facilities, which is not permitted under the urban hope act

In their applications, both Mastery and Uncommon Schools indicated that they intend to partner with Camden in operating schools in temporary facilities, including, in the case of Mastery, an existing and operating Camden public school. The Urban Hope Act does not allow schools to be operated on a temporary basis in temporary facilities, whether those facilities are in existing Camden public schools or in some other building.”

As noted in my article, Mastery and Uncommon subsequently provided some of the information required by the applications. However, they did so months after the application deadline had passed, and after the Superintendent had approved their applications without that required information.

In doing so, the Superintendent not only violated the Urban Hope Law, he also demonstrated favoritism towards specific private entities by providing them with preferential treatment.
That is not how the law is supposed to work.

When someone receives preferential treatment from a person in a position of power, it undermines the legitimacy of the entire process. Unfortunately, Camden residents have come to expect such inside dealings from their elected and appointed officials, but that does not justify this kind of corruption.

Even when they belatedly submitted the required information to the State, Mastery and Uncommon failed to provide it to the people of Camden, as required by the Urban Hope law. That is much more than a legal concern. Not giving Camden residents an opportunity to see and comment on that information highlights how little Mastery and Uncommon care about what Camden residents actually think or what they want for their children.

The fact that no legal actions have been brought against Mastery, Uncommon and the Camden Superintendent yet is not surprising. The Commissioner only approved their applications last week. It also is not surprising that the Commissioner approved those applications only after the changes to the Urban Hope law had been snuck through the legislature.

And, there is little doubt that Governor Christie will sign those changes. As Matt Katz demonstrated so well in his excellent coverage of Camden http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/14/07/11/chris-christie-and-america-s-poorest-city/ the Governor and the South Jersey political machine of George Norcross have been working together closely to privatize Camden’s public schools. The latest changes to the Urban Hope Act were undoubtedly cleared by the Governor’s office before being enacted.

Ms. Waters, if Mastery, Uncommon and the Superintendent did not violate the Urban Hope law, then why go to all the trouble to surreptitiously change that law?

To Know said...

Mr. JJ, this is a powerful post, circumspect, well-documented, and beautifully drafted. Your background as a musician shines through with every word. And, by damn, it is brave.

Your other online moniker, Duke, is a tip of the hat to one of our great American musical geniuses, the incomparable Edward Kennedy Ellington. I completely accept—and I detect in your devotion—your sincere and expressed desire to pay tribute to his gift to our time, a love of music. Duke’s conveyance, through the tonal vibration of piano strings as he explored a universe of expression made available to his fingertips by the instrument of another man’s design, the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori, is a message which circles the world. It has touched countless lives in endless ways, binding us together in a common love of his art and influence.

Native ability, and the creative innovation it inspires, is, in my opinion, a person’s unique gift to their time and place. Duke in his, and now you in ours, are living examples of the fact that people of different cultures can combine to produce transformative displays of innovation which were completely beyond the inventor’s ability to predict. But this occurs only if we cultivate it in our lives and communities. Herein lies a problem with assumptions of white privilege, of which there are many.

Your post, I suspect, will make quite a few people squirm, and be dismissed by many others for convenient and familiar reasons. Me? I back you on this because I agree that these things need to be said and discussed openly. It is not white guilt which drives my comment, nor noblesse oblige, nor any other convoluted form of racially-rooted redress. It is my distaste for bigotry of any stripe, and my gut suspicion of culturally sanctioned ignorance—wherever I experience it—by which I decry our relationship to a growing list of inner city sacrifice zones. The “ruling class”—of whatever skin tone, but predominantly white, have allowed this wanton abuse to progress to a point where certain factions within our society—factions with an extended history of righteous crusading—have reached another decisive threshold in our country. They have positioned themselves, with covert diligence, to make yet another self-serving example of a group of people who we, as citizens, have allowed to be situated, in various forms of degradation, through generations. These inhuman crucibles are derived from a need, rooted in commerce and cloaked in the most pernicious forms of “reason,” for the worst of us to have someone do our grunt work. They also fulfill, by indifference or hate, a delusional need for an example of an "inferior" breed—within our own genus and species. Science, wisdom, and common decency be damned, bigotry has its appeal. Political expedience claims the hearts of our elected representatives while they lick the boot of the money people and remain curiously deaf, blind, and mute.

It all plays out in story so that we, as a disparate expression of a culture, can somehow feel ourselves to be the masters of our hapless destiny, and by extension, the masters of the world. Some of us, anyway.

If any of your readers are moved to exit my words, I suggest they take a closer look at the cycle of abuse which is the basic formula underlying the plight of cities like Newark, Camden, Paterson, and Detroit. American cities, all.

(continued in next comment)

To Know said...

(Part 2)

Many of our fellow citizens take perverse satisfaction in the destruction we have rained, as Americans, on various populations, around the globe, in the name of American-style virtues and freedoms. Millions of lives, evaporated; women and children, non-combatants, along with their land, their ways, the fruit of their industry—gone yet not forgotten. Much of our cultural heritage as a varied global population has been wiped from the earth as someones’s expression of high accomplishment, all in the name of the god of war, or the desire for a pure ideal.

We have justified these actions in the name of defense, but we have also rationalized the need for deliberate, sustained aggression, accompanied by subversive acts of espionage, propaganda, covert and open warfare, as a logical and necessary and proactive extension of the need to defend our values and our American way.

And people buy into it, in droves. With flags. And with stunning complicity from the media, the government, and a fully-bedecked American bandstand.

While some of us feel deceived, by now, others are inflamed and unrepentant. In particular are those, with a little too much pocket change, who become not only more aggressive, but entirely too clever in their marketing skills with regard to selling the latest crusade of the cross. How can it be, that after so many hundreds of years—millennia—the people of the cross are still struggling to prove their inherent nobility at the expense of an “inferior” race? Alternatively, their targets are found to be lacking “proper” religion.

Anyone in education who hasn’t detected a distinctly “Christian under Mammon” influence in the corporate charter schools movement has not been doing their homework. Better start cracking the books, people, because it is high time to make note of the holy warriors among us. And it is a white privilege thing—believe me.

(continued in next comment)

To Know said...

(Part 3)

Mitt Romney for President? "Just another" businessman? Are you kidding me? Look into Mormonism, for example, and its deepest beliefs. If you can claim to be superior educators, do your research and stop tying us up with this cleric’s nonsense about the precise number of angels you have on the head of your charter-based pin.

To borrow from the Jazzman—please don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-Mormon. Nor am I anti-religion. Nor anti-atheist. Unless it was all a drooling nap-induced vision upon my student desk, the classroom in which I was raised had a distinct emphasis on the civility of the public sphere, complete with a separation of church and state, and a verifiable oath of religious tolerance. That was part of what made America distinctly American. Of course I made note of the occasional loud-mouthed exception, and the off-color ethnic humor, but I did not, as a child, experience hate until I migrated, in the seventh grade, to a racially-blended school system. That was my introduction to the long-simmering legacy of abuse at the hands of some very old racial presumptions, still bruised and bleeding and evident in the minds of kids too young to know without some form of instruction.

Not everyone was taught from the same history, however, and different people were able to derive different messages from the same narrative. Many of us found a common ground, but still there was the shadow, always in the background, of dominance, submission, and the need to measure one’s trust. There was also the conspicuous display of a need to fight for one’s place in the dominant order, or face being trampled.

The racial tension and loss of humanity which we continue to suffer is absolutely rooted in white prerogatives and white values, even if we do like to parade examples of successful "assimilation." Look very closely and you will see. We have, without a doubt, become our own worst bogeyman. And no one, but no one, can be justifiably held to pay the price for our abuse and neglect other than our very own feather-pillowed selves. Try as we may to offload it by the megaton. Try as we may to argue that there are insanely wealthy people of color, sufficient, by torturous reason, to balance the scales of inequity.

(continued in next comment)

To Know said...

(Part 4)

If we were better able to recognize the confounding and twisted filaments of race and class, religion and power, then we would not have cities like Newark and Camden and Paterson and Detroit; systematically neglected, decimated, and now being conspicuously “rebuilt” just to prove a point about how distinctly chosen some among us feel regarding their unique ability to rule by decree.

Racism? Dead? Not a chance in hell. Whose soul, do we suppose, will be made to pay for that claim?

Duke still has soul and so does Jazz, in spades. It’s time to stop pilfering from our “lesser" brothers and sisters, the blood, and sweat, and heart we might be lacking, and stand up for human dignity—in all its varied expressions. Everyone has the right to develop their own abilities, by virtue of their own volition, to the deepest level desired, from the place where they are born, and travel as they may, through their fortune and their destiny, without the threat of violence, denial, or abuse—if we presume to call ourselves an enlightened and civil society. Arguing for less is simply eloquent barbarism.

Please, readers, take time to hear my words. Heaven help us if we fail in our honest and essential commitment, not only to ourselves, but to all of our fellow human beings. You may be stunned, either way, to discover what you would otherwise never have the occasion to learn. There are other ways than the ones we are taught to revere, and we need to honor them as well. If we do not, we will be seen as ignorant and unworthy of trust.

Julia said...

Please check out this powerful comment that Camden resident, parent and teacher Keith Benson posted in response to Ms. Waters article:


Giuseppe said...

Julia, thanks for the link to the Keith Benson article. In it, he mentions how infuriating are the whimsical musings of Laura Waters. That's been my experience, too; anytime I read almost any article written by Waters, my head explodes. The kindest thing I can say is that her ideas are clueless and appear to emanate from some alternate universe in a galaxy far, far away in a time warp wrapped in an enigma. After reading Laura waters, I have to smash my head up against the wall several times because she is so disingenuous and because she so abuses the truth.

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