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

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Dismantling Of Camden's School District Continues According To Plan

The way things are going, public schools in Camden will soon be extinct:
The Camden School District announced another round of layoffs and personnel moves Thursday, affecting 154 teachers and support staff.
The state-run district said it was laying off 22 teachers; 27 school staff, including custodians, security guards, and clerks; and 29 members of the central office staff.
A spokesman for Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said the cuts were needed to help plug a projected $39 million budget gap for the 2016-17 school year.
The cuts were announced Thursday night at the advisory school board's meeting at Dudley School. The district is required by the state to notify staff of any personnel changes by May 15. 
The district began the process of notifying those affected on Wednesday by distributing letters, spokesman Brendan Lowe said.
An additional 20 teachers and 56 student services staff will be fired for performance-related reasons, district officials said. These employees were also notified by letter of their dismissal.
Lowe said the changes were part of an "effort here to bring our staffing levels in line to where we need to be." In addition to the 154 affected employees, about two dozen other staff vacancies will not be filled.
"Our schools will still be well-supported, but we do need to make some reductions," Lowe said. "The superintendent made a lot of hard decisions." [emphasis mine]
Don't you just love how all these people are going to lose their jobs, but we're really supposed to feel bad for the guy who's firing them?

There's also grim humor to be found in Rouhanifard's excuse for gutting the district's staff:
Camden, with about 15,000 students, has a proposed $372 million budget for the coming school year. The state took over the district in 2013 because of the city's chronically failing schools, among the worst in New Jersey.
Rouhanifard, appointed by Gov. Christie to lead the struggling district, has said the district must cut spending to offset years of declining enrollment and financial mismanagement.
Despite the cuts announced Thursday, Rouhanifard said that because the district will have fewer students, most classrooms will have a 9-1 student-teacher ratio in the coming year, compared with 10-1 now.
"At the end of the day, we had to make these reductions," he said. "Not only were [the positions] not necessary instructionally, they are not sustainable financially."
Oh, please -- let's not pretend for one second that what's happening in Camden is inevitable. The dismantling of Camden's public school system was planned years ago, and that plan was funded by a California billionaire with an ideological agenda.

In many ways, the takeover and impending dissolution of Camden's public schools is a textbook case of how to privatize a district:

2006: The state appoints a fiscal monitor for the Camden district after members of the Legislature are shocked -- shocked, I tell you! -- that a city that has been under the thumb of a political machine for years might have some corruption.

2007: The board appoints a new superintendent with the monitor's blessing.

2008: The district cuts staff as part of a budgetary freeze.

2009: The district faces more staffing cuts.

2010: The city faces more layoffs.

2011: The district makes further cuts while simultaneously increasing the police presence at its schools. The district felt it had no choice but to pay for the police itself as half of the police force had been laid off in the previous year.

2013: The state takes over the district. Gov. Christie installs a very young superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, who has never run a school, let alone a school system.

2014: Rouhanifard announces another round of layoffs.

2015: Rouhanifard announces yet another round of layoffs.

2016: Rouhanifard announces yet another round of layoffs.

Understand: Rouhanifard's job at the NYCDOE was to go around New York and close neighborhood schools so they could be replaced with charters. Obviously, this is why then-Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and Christie picked him for the job: he knows how to dismantle a public school system and turn it over to privatizers.

Which has been exactly what has happened in Camden. Even as the state monitor, and then Rouhanifard, oversaw the systematic defunding of Camden's schools, the state allowed charter schools to grow with little to no oversight.

The state gave a charter to a school operator who pretty much destroyed the Chester, PA public school system while engaging in some highly questionable practices that resulted in sanctions against the school's officials.

The state allowed a charter to expand that also engaged in several highly questionable practices, yet always seemed able to draw more financing for its expansion. The lack of transparency about this school's operations is, in a word, stunning.

The state gave a plot of land that was supposed to be used for a new district public school to a charter operator that has dictated the terms of its enrollment, refusing to serve students in grade levels it doesn't want to enroll. This operator, incidentally, already tried and failed to run a successful charter school in Camden. It's also worth noting that when members of the Camden school board tried to stand up to this plan, they were summarily punished and removed.

The state allowed district buildings to be used to colocate charters, then stood by as the charters renovated only the parts of the buildings they occupied. Which meant the children enrolled in the charter had air-conditioning, while the children enrolled in the district school were stuck in dangerously hot classrooms.

Rouhanifard sadly lamented that there was nothing he could do:
(3:50) Guys, I want to respond to your questions and concerns; it's hard to do that when everyone's shouting over me. And I'm happy to let you all shout over me for 90 minutes straight if that's what you want to do.  
What I'm trying to communicate to you is that these are not easy decisions to make. And we're doing this because the district and their finances can't renovate this building the same way one of our partners can. And that's a financial decision.
Yes, it is: the people who actually run Camden decided that charter schools get financing and aid and support, while the public district schools go begging. Those who live in the city and object to this state of affairs are patted on the head and then promptly ignored.

So here we are in 2016: the parents of Camden can "choose" to send their child to an unsafe school with lead in the water, or they can "choose" a charter school that is not under democratic control, not subject to the same standards of transparency as public district schools, more likely to hire inexperienced teachers who are of a different race than their students, and abrogates the rights of students and families.

This did not happen by accident. Let's pull this post of mine from 2012 out of the memory hole:
A couple of bombshells dropped out of the NJ DOE yesterday. First, from Kevin Shelley at the Courier-Post:
CAMDEN — A secret Department of Education proposal called for the state to intervene in the city’s school district by July 1, closing up to 13 city and charter schools. 
The intervention proposal, which was obtained by the Courier-Post, was written by Department of Education employee Bing Howell. 
He did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment. 
Howell serves as a liaison to Camden for the creation of four Urban Hope Act charter schools. He reports directly to the deputy commissioner of education, Andy Smerick.
Howell’s proposal suggests that he oversee the intervention through portfolio management — providing a range of school options with the state, not the district, overseeing the options. He would be assisted by Rochelle Sinclair, another DOE employee. Both Howell and Sinclair are fellows of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation. [emphasis mine]
Kinda like Old Faithful at this point. The proposal calls for the usual round of school closings, because instability is just so freaking great for kids living in difficult conditions. But here's the part that's going to raise eyebrows:
• Control the school board by taking away members’ ability to vote for at least six months, plus adding three state-appointed members. Place all hiring and firing decisions in the hands of the state Board of Education
• If a superintendent vacancy happens during state intervention, the commissioner would recommend a replacement with confirmation by state board. 
• Increase charter schools and attract charter management organizations such as those run by the KIPP chain. Send Camden students out of district to choice and vocational schools. 
The proposal also calls for passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a proposed corporate tax credit scholarship bill. This would be used to send children to religious schools and private schools, including boarding schools.

Howell also said the state should partner with Teach for America, Knowledge is Power Program and The New Teacher Project . The three programs have or had links to Broad Foundation board members Wendy Kopp (TFA), Richard Barth (KIPP) and Michelle Rhee (formerly of TNTP and a TFA alumna). [emphasis mine]
Let's reiterate this because it's important:

Years ago, the NJDOE, with funding from California billionaire Eli Broad, developed a detailed plan to privatize Camden schools. That plan has been methodically implemented. Nothing that is occurring in Camden's schools is happening by accident -- it was all planned.

And none of these plans were ever approved in a democratic process by the people of Camden.

Why is that, do you think?

In New Jersey, democratic control of schools is reserved for affluent, white communities. All others will have their "choices" made for them.

This is a brazenly racist state of affairs -- can anyone honestly say otherwise?

What worries me is that after this grand experiment in replacing democracy with market "choice" fails, someone is going to have to clean up the mess. Someone is going to have to provide all of Camden's children with an education. But the trail of destruction left behind is going to be so great that fixing Camden's public schools will be an even more massive challenge than it is right now.

Of course, by then Chris Christie will be gone, Eli Broad will have moved on, and Paymon Rouhanifard will be off to his next gig. They may by then have returned control of the district to the people of Camden...

But what will they leave behind? I'll leave the last word to Stephen Danley, who has come to know Camden as well as any researcher:
And this gets to the fundamental question. The choice that “No Excuses” schools, and that the Camden School District and wider political forces here in the city has made is this: it believes that schools which use disproportionate discipline upon poor and minority students are ok so long as their test scores improve. One injustice, that of mistreating students, is allowable being it serves a broader justice, that of increasing their scores. So even though many involved in this system of schools will profess privately that they are uncomfortable with the strict discipline enforced upon minority children, they are willing to use it if it increases scores at those schools. 
There are plenty of reasons to think it does not. But I want to point to my bigger issue with this strategy. It assumes that outsiders can create justice by mistreating a community. On issues of cultural competency and school discipline, we’re seeing progress in Camden. But that progress comes from a self-inflicted starting point. If progressive discipline was a priority from the start, these are not the schools that should have been chosen. If progressive discipline was a priority in schools, they would not be using a “No Excuses” ideology. It’s like Malcolm X says, “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress.

1 comment:

phila.ken said...

The very same process is happening in Philadelphia under Broad Superintendent Hite and the state run School Reform Commission.

Riding the 'Turnaround' Merry-Go-Round in the Continuing Assault on Philadelphia Public Schools | Defend Public Education