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

Friday, January 16, 2015

Cami Anderson and the Inevitable Failure of State Control

I've been so busy this week, what with saving the youth of America on my first job and then producing "statistical gibberish" when I get home, that blogging had to take a backseat. But I really didn't want the week to pass without saying a word about Cami Anderson, the State Superintendent of Newark.

Only those in deep denial would suggest that Anderson's appearance before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools last week was anything less than an unmitigated disaster. It appears that Mayor Ras Baraka has decided to take advantage of Anderson's self-destruction: Bob Braun has published a letter from Baraka calling for Anderson's immediate resignation. I trust Bob's nose for this stuff more than anyone, so when he says the local Democrats are fleeing from Anderson and Baraka is taking advantage to gain political position, I believe him.

How could it have possibly come to this? How could Anderson have become so loathed in just a few short years? I think the answer goes back to the same thing I've been harping on for a good long while: state takeovers of school districts are doomed to failure.

To illustrate my point, look at this photo of Anderson at the hearing, courtesy of NJ Spotlight:

There's Anderson, and to her left is Education Commissioner David Hespe. Let me be clear: I have far fewer issues with Hespe than his predecessor. But there is a big, big problem with this picture...

Because out of the shot are all of the State Senators and Assemblypersons (Assemblypeople?) who proceeded to roast Anderson during her four-hour appearance. They all sit opposite and above the table where the witnesses speak (trust me, it's a little intimidating).

So there sat Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, seeking answers about special education classifications and consultant contracts and getting next to nothing.

There sat Senator Teresa Ruiz, glaring at Anderson while saying "I am so angry!" recounting the disasters that have unfolded at Barringer High School.

There sat Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, who said he had never seen such discontent, wondering why nobody could tell him who reviewed the waiver for charter school lotteries that were part of One Newark.

There sat Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, wondering why she couldn't get answers about absenteeism in the district.

There sat former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who claimed Anderson had "Negated the life experience and wisdom of countless professional educators in your system."

There sat Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, looking for answers about educators without placement and budgets... and getting nothing.

And there sat Senator Ronald Rice, seething at the flippant disregard for his fiduciary duty to oversee the public schools. Over and over, Rice castigated Anderson for her arrogance and her refusal to provide information about Newark schools and her One Newark plan.

And through the entire thing, Hespe sat at Anderson's side. Towards the end, he actually intervened and tried to persuade the committee to end the session. He wasn't her overseer; he was her protector. Here's how Bob saw it:
Hespe wasn’t  a witness. He wasn’t even supposed to be there. He was a sort of a minder–or, maybe, big brother – to hold Anderson’s hand (figuratively) while legislators from both parties relentlessly asked questions that demonstrated they failed to understand her genius and couldn’t give a damn about her journey through life and her passion for education. After her ordeal ended, Anderson refused to answer reporters’ questions and  all but fled the committee room, chased by television cameras shining bright lights.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with state control of schools: it moves the state from a position of holding district superintendents accountable to just holding their hands.

As the commissioner, Hepse was on the wrong side of the table. He should have been asking these questions. He should have had all the facts and figures for the committee, because he should have already demanded them from Anderson. He should have already grilled Anderson on every question the senators and assemblypersons would ask, because it's his job to hold Anderson accountable.

At least, it should be his job. But when the state takes over a district, everything flips. Suddenly, the State Superintendent is tied to the political fortunes of the governor, who has a vested interest in parading her around when it helps his popularity ratings (and hiding her when it doesn't).

Both Anderson and Hespe serve at the pleasure of the governor -- a governor who was soundly rejected by Newark's voters in the last two elections. Christie never needed to win Essex County to get reelected, but he does need to paint a false picture of success in Newark's schools if he's ever going to win the Republican nomination for president.

And so the charade: Anderson continues to make ridiculous statements about how much she is truly beloved in Newark, so long as you ask the right people, who don't ever seem to be around. Claims of success are made by Anderson's mentors that are demonstrably false. And the Education Commissioner, who should be front and center in demanding answers from Anderson, instead shields her from harsh questioning.

Look, I am the first one to say there is an appropriate role for the state in overseeing school districts. And there are plenty of occasions where the state is completely justified in taking control from a district's board. Many times, democracy is the least worst system of governance we have, particularly at the local level.

But this country was established under a system of checks and balances. Right now, there are no checks and no balances on the governance of schools in Newark, or Camden, or Jersey City, or Paterson. All of these cities' schools are at the mercy of Chris Christie, but he owes nothing to any of the voters who reside within their boundaries. He is free to use these school districts as political props, install whomever he wants to run the schools against the will of the populace, and turn a blind eye toward the inevitable failures of his inexperienced lieutenants.

Again: the state has a role to play in how we run our schools. But Commissioner Hespe is not playing that role in Newark. It's time to draw a bright, clear line between the Commissioner and the Superintendent. Let Newark appoint its own superintendent, and let the Commissioner hold his or her feet to the fire.

That's the way these things are supposed to work.

I've got your back, Cami! Until... well, you know...


P. Grunther said...

As usual, Mark, extremely well stated. When a Board of Education implements policy that parents and community members, who are also taxpayers obviously, disagree with, they can/will be voted out of office - this is indeed how a system of checks and balances functions (not always perfectly, but fairly well it seems to me) when there is local control of schools. There is absolutely no recourse for Newark's citizens who overwhelmingly object to Christie and Anderson's policies for their children (hence the victory of Ras Baraka)...this is so clearly not democracy in action and not how State management of school districts was intended to be carried out.

SraJackson said...

On point! She has been a disaster and when she is finally called to answer, the man that should be there defending the children of Newark doesn't even know his own job! Hespe is a failure because of his inactions.

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