Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch
THE DECAY OF AMERICAN MEDIA — Patrick L. Smith on the decline and fall of American journalism; Peter Lee on China and its Uyghur problem; Dave Macaray on brain trauma, profits and the NFL; Lee Ballinger on the bloody history of cotton. PLUS: “The Vindication of Love” by JoAnn Wypijewski; “The Age of SurrealPolitick” by Jeffrey St. Clair; “The Radiation Zone” by Kristin Kolb; “Washington’s Enemies List” by Mike Whitney; “The School of Moral Statecraft” by Chris Floyd and “The Surveillance Films of Laura Poitras” by Kim Nicolini.
Closing Time

New Jersey’s Education Cerf-dumb

by MICHELLE RENEE MATISONS and SETH SANDRONSKY

In this class bludgeoning era of public education, when repression is used to silence dissent and school employee and student displacement is the new normal, anyone following predatory education reform tactics knows private money is trying to manipulate the fate of local school district business.  Not exactly shocking news, but New Jersey is a case study in absurdity—backed by a private money trail as difficult to trace as it is to herd fat cats.  New Jersey is an important national case study because of its proximity to New York City; its notorious former Independent mayor Michael Bloomberg; its segregated sub/urban population; its status as the home of important legal precedents in equal education; and its pro-public education activist-citizenry.  In the post-Occupy era of activist malaise and low morale in the face of 1% triumphalism, there are many important lessons to be gleaned in the ongoing fight against New Jersey’s education “Cerf-dumb.”

New Jersey Commissioner of Education, Chris Cerf, is not a household name.  He operates under the radar of GOP Governor Chris Christie’s scene stealing, media monopolizing, bridge-clogging antics.  But we should all know about Cerf because, in many ways, his professional career parallels the trajectory of education privatization itself.  This trajectory spans from Edison schools (early urban school privatizing enthusiasts), to his stint as deputy chancellor in the NYC Department of Education, to his firm Global Education Advisors, which received over $1 million of the $148 million Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg donated for Newark education reform in 2010. (The bulk of the Zuckerberg donation was managed by The Foundation for Newark’s Future, described in Forbes Magazine as a short-term philanthropic “shot in the arm” to achieve “long-term change in Newark’s schools.”)

Cerf, a 2004 graduate of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation Academy, is one of education’s important faces for public-private partnerships made in the sole interest of the 1%—and their bourgeois lackeys.  But it’s difficult to track the specifics of these partnership projects despite repeated efforts to do so using the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).  Powerful people are very interested in obscuring the private funds trailing into New Jersey Department of Education coffers.  This money trail links the NJ DOE to private foundations: namely, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, whose money is from John Arnold’s time with Enron, and The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation (TBF).

While Laura and John Arnold have their hands in education policy and teachers’ union issues, including pension reform, TBF, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit , is one to watch closely.  Eli Broad has been a lead “venture philanthropist” in education reform (alongside Bill Gates and the Walton Family).  TBF launched “education investments” in 1999, and has invested $600 million, an average of $40 million a year, since then –according to TBF.  Broad’s net worth, begun in the home–building business, is $6.9 billion, with $3.5 billion of that figure donated to TBF’s philanthropies (education, science, art and civic), according to Forbes Magazine.

In education, TBF works on “transformative federal and state policy; groundbreaking innovation in teaching and learning; strong leadership; and redesigned, high-performing institutions.”  One of the many programs TBF runs is an Academy that trains upwardly mobile education professionals.  Broad Academy students learn the privatization philosophy and its graduates get placed in influential education positions—such as school superintendents and administrators in state departments of education.  From there they wreak havoc on transparency rules, government accountability, and democratic decision-making processes for their true billionaire bosses.

Historic Legal Turf

New Jersey education reformers play their crafty game on historic legal turf.  The state has extensive jurisprudence protecting poor students’ rights to a quality education.  According to the Education Law Center (ELC) website (www.edlawcenter.org), the center won “Abbot v. Burke” in a 1985 New Jersey Supreme Court decision; it is the most important national legal decision regarding education equality after Brown v. the Board of Education in Topeka, KS 1954.

In Abbott, the ELC argued that unconstitutional funding disparities existed between poor urban and wealthy suburban school districts because of New Jersey’s method of school funding, and therefore poorer urban districts could not meet their students’ educational needs.  A subsequent wave of decisions came after this initial Abbott decision.  Abbott’s legacy applies today in urban districts included in the Garden State’s School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008.  According to the ELC website, after the New Jersey legislature accepted Christie’s $1.1 billion in education cuts: “On May 24, 2011…the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the State’s failure to fund SFRA caused “instructionally consequential and significant” harm to at-risk students in districts across the state.”   The Court also found that the funding cut’s harm is not a “minor infringement” to students’ right to a thorough and efficient education, but “a real substantial and consequential blow” to that right.   In Abbott XXI, the Court ordered full funding for the 31 urban districts in 2012.

Well, guess what?  That court-ordered full funding hasn’t happened.  On January 21, 2014, the ELC posted a web article stating the DOE won’t fix New Jersey’s urban schools, but they have been on an administrative spending bender.  The School Development Authority (SDA), which oversees New Jersey urban school district spending, is now headed by former United States Attorney for New Jersey, Charles McKenna.  (One wonders how his work with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Office of Homeland Security prepared him for his new career in urban schools.  But consider Janet Napolitano’s transition from Homeland Security to University of California president as a precedent:  from the War on Terror to the War on Teachers. ) The SDA has $2.9 billion in unspent bonded financing for construction projects.  The ELC website reports that: “…there is new evidence that SDA will continue on its present course of undertaking as little work as possible in order not to spend down the available funds.”  ELC cites the SDA’s new Builders insurance policy as evidence of their backwards priorities.

ELC’s statement regarding administrative spending and the lack of real school improvement projects coincided with two other urban school improvement announcements: a January 20, 2014, announcement of $100 million for school improvement projects, and a January 21, 2014, announcement about remodeling plans for dilapidated Trenton High School.  But don’t let these announcements fool you into thinking the DOE gives a damn about students.

Small Circles

The fat cats want to conquer New Jersey public schools by next year. And this has been the plan for a while now—in no small thanks to former Newark mayor and now U.S. Senator Cory Booker.  Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford recently wrote: “By 2016, thanks to both Booker and Christie, charter schools will account for more than a third of Newark’s student enrollment.”   Ford reports that Booker, a Democrat whose political career is largely due to his championing the private voucher agenda, will most likely “…back Republican Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander’s bill to transfer about 41 percent of federal public school moneys to the states, which could then turn the funds into vouchers.”

Small circles.  Booker was present as Newark mayor when Gov. Christie appointed Cami Anderson as Superintendent of Newark schools, which are state-controlled.  Like Cerf, Anderson is a New York City groomed education reform insider.  Anderson received an Ed.M. from Harvard and then worked as Teach for America’s executive director for New York City and as the chief program officer of New Leaders for New Schools, which trains urban principals.  She was the Superintendent of District 79, Alternative Schools and Programs, for New York City Schools before moving on to New Jersey. Like Booker and Cerf before her, Anderson was handpicked to implement the Gates, Walton, Broad Inc. sponsored takeover of America’s public schools: Christie handed Newark to Anderson on a silver platter and an annual salary of almost $250,000.

The Conditional Broad Grant

Public charter schools have attracted the business community because they receive taxpayer dollars but operate under a contract with a nonprofit or for-profit group, are free from accountability to an elected local school board, and they do not have to honor collective bargaining agreements and other standard labor regulations. Nationally, 6.3% of all traditional public schools are charter.  In New York state, 4.5% of schools are chartered and in New Jersey, 3.5 % of schools are chartered.

If education privatizers have their way, charter numbers will dramatically increase in New Jersey.  Through strategic DOE appointments, and private, hush-hush donations to the New Jersey Department of Education, TBF is heavily (but quietly) promoting the expansion of New Jersey’s public charter schools.  In a very secretive deal made in 2012, TBF gave the New Jersey DOE a $430,000 grant with the bold condition that GOP Gov. Chris Christie, who gained no small fame for heroically confronting a dastardly public school teacher before his reelection, remains in office. This TBF grant arrived at New Jersey’s doorstep before “Bridge-gate”— a scandal that forced out Christie’s aides who revenged an elected official for neglecting to support Christie’s reelection.  (If you missed it: they closed the George Washington Bridge’s driving lanes–restricting ground transit.)

Is deliberate traffic manipulation more scandalous than Christie’s role in education policy formation with TBF funds?  We think not.  The grant’s conditions need publicity.  It makes the fund availability conditional on the re-election of Chris Christie!  How’s that for an unthinkable level of unabashed string pulling? When Bob Braun reported the grant conditions in Newark’s Star-Ledger, he quoted David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center:  “That’s astonishing…It is highly unusual, maybe precedent-setting — to require that an elected official remain in office as a condition for a grant”.

As Rick Cohen reported in the Nonprofit Quarterly of Dec. 2012, “The Broad Foundation grant is in support of various educational reforms in the state, with performance benchmarks such as a 50 percent increase in the number of charter schools or the number of high quality charter schools, depending on which way one reads the grant language. It is not the first Broad grant to New Jersey, having been preceded by extensive support to the state’s Department of Education aimed at “‘accelerat(ing)’ the pace of ‘disruptive’ and ‘transformational’ change.”

Asked by phone what has changed or not for New Jersey’s education policy over the past 13 months, Cohen stated that the status quo of public charter school growth is picking up steam.  This is definitely the case in Newark, where One Newark—Anderson’s plan for  33 school closures, new charters, and mandatory enrollment by application– moves forward despite fierce community opposition.  In a Dec. 10, 2013, Newark Public Schools press statement found on their website, “One Newark Enrolls” provides a universal enrollment program distinctly different than standard charter school lotteries: “A single, fair, user-friendly application that will break down barriers so all families have the opportunity to apply to high quality schools of their choice.”  In the Brave New World of public school choice (which eerily reflects marketplace language), students and their parents increase their opportunities when they boost consumer power.  Supply and demand rule when buyers and sellers respond to personal interests, and the public supposedly benefits from such possessive individualism. This political economic vision is found in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) in which an “invisible hand” of marketplace deals between buyers and sellers replace the visible rule of the monarch.

Wait a second. An invisible hand?  Also from the Newark Public Schools website: “With the adoption of One Newark Enrolls, NPS will now provide charters with ongoing operational support through the creation of user manuals and toolkits, informational materials, trainings, office hour phone conferences, and webinars for those charters that have opted in, as well as training for those charters that have not opted into the system to ensure that their students who will have to use this system also have a positive enrollment experience.” This wall of words describes a serious helping hand to public charter schools.  Not quite invisible!

There were just less than 1.5 million students enrolled in New Jersey public schools in 2012-2013.  According to Michael Turner, New Jersey Charter Schools Association spokesman, there are 30,000 students in 87 public charter schools now, with 20,000 more on waiting lists.  Given these numbers—especially the waiting lists–charter enthusiasts see lots of room to grow, but Newark is fighting back against school closures and the “Broader” agenda of education privatization.  A list of demands has recently been posted on the “Save Newark Schools” Facebook page.  They demand: “return of local control to Newark Public Schools; all principals and parent leadership be immediately re-instated to their original positions within our district schools; and full expungement of all sanctions executed without due process. (Clear their records!); an immediate halt to State-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson’s “One Newark” Plan; a fair democratic process for all union negotiations; fair treatment for all NPS employees with zero tolerance for bullying; a moratorium on all school closings (turnarounds, phase outs, renews, transformations, co-locations, re-designs, re-sites) implemented by Ms. Anderson; immediate removal of State-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.”

“Reigning Supreme”

This list of demands was read by Newark mayoral hopeful Ras Baraka, a former principal and current city councilmember, at a packed Newark School Board meeting held on January 28, 2014.  Baraka emphasized that Newark school administrators will not be intimidated by Anderson’s recent firing and reinstatement/ reassignment of five principals and one clerk, and the banishment of one parent from his kids’ school: these members of the “Newark 7” have filed a lawsuit claiming Anderson violated their rights.  The meeting was held in an auditorium much smaller than the anticipated number of attendees, forcing many to wait outside in the cold.  Also, doors were locked half an hour before the event—when many were attending a nearby rally.

Inside, things grew heated as Anderson abruptly left the meeting when Natasha Allen, the mother of a Newark high school junior and honor roll student, delivered a memorable speech in this historic battle over our public schools.  When addressing the One Newark plan for universal enrollment, Allen explained: “You are annihilating our choice.  We want you to pack your bag and go…You got your new little apartment up in Montclair, and then you just come down here and reign supreme…You act like we’re in a state of martial law.  You act like you deployed the army on us…So do you not want for your brown babies what we want for ours”?

Some commentators  suggest Anderson left the meeting because she was offended by Allen’s reference to her “brown baby” (Anderson has a young son with a black man), but it’s Allen’s reference to Anderson “reign[ing] supreme”—as if she called the “army” on the people of Newark–that speaks to the white supremacist nature of the Cerf-dumb plan for public education.  Anderson feels she doesn’t have to listen to Allen’s direct rejection of One Newark’s explicit racism, emotionally expressed through her appeal to their shared identities as mothers of brown babies.  With the fat cats behind her, Anderson feels and acts supreme.

Echoing and validating Allen’s concerns, academia has also weighed in on One Newark.  The authors of “Empirical Critique of One Newark”—released by New Jersey Education Policy Forum on January 24, 2014—question the district’s school classification methodology and suggest the classifications are “arbitrary and capricious, yielding racially and economically disparate effects.”  The report also suggests that exposing “low income and minority” students to “substantial disruption to their schooling, shifting many to schools under private governance, may substantially alter the rights of these children, their parents and local taxpayers.”  In a nutshell, the report suggests that One Newark lacks empirical justification, discriminates against poor students and students of color, and violates the rights of Newark citizens.

Urban Spring

These report findings are no surprise when one considers the Dept. of Ed. uses the “Broad methodology” to guide their research. (It’s disappointing that its academic authors characteristically fail to acknowledge the DOE’s private foundation ties).  New developments continue apace.  On January 30, 2014, the New Jersey Senate Education Committee voted 4-0 for SB 966, the Stop Forced Public School Closings legislation, which requires local school board approval before a local public school could be closed.  (One wonders how the legislation will play out against the Democrat initiated Urban Hope Act, which establishes a pilot program in Newark, Camden, and Trenton that allows private organizations to build and operate new public schools for school districts.)

Although this article focuses on Newark, Camden is another New Jersey school closure hotspot.  Camden’s new State Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard’s “Strategic Vision for Camden Schools” looks a lot like One Newark: but he may have an easier time with implementation because Camden’s school board is appointed, not elected.  Rouhanifard has spent time on Wall Street, then in the NY Dept of Ed., and he more recently served as Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer for Newark Public Schools.  When Newark’s School Board meeting was happening, about 100 Camden citizens were locked out of their Board of Education meeting.  Police were present to intimidate citizens who have the nerve to be politically opinionated about mass urban school closures.

Newark’s Natasha Allen is one of many people who are far from being intimidated.  In her speech this week, she emphasized that New Jersey students’ “…top priority are the schools they’re already in.”  It’s the People v. New Jersey now: will the people close this Cerf-dumb down?  “Urban Spring” (a wave of activism called for by “Save Newark Schools”) can’t come early enough this year.

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D., is an independent scholar doing education research in the Florida panhandle.  Email michrenee@gmail.com.

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist in Sacramento. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com.