Now Playing in Newark, NJ

by Stan Karp

Monday, November 29, 2010

Long before director Davis Guggenheim jumped out of a phone booth in his Superman costume, I spent three decades as a high school teacher in Paterson, one of New Jerseys poorest cities. Paterson had its own 15 minutes of school reform fame in the 1980s, thanks to Principal Joe Clark, whose bullhorn and baseball bat were featured in another superhero school movie,Lean on Me, a sanitized version of Clarks reign of error at Eastside High School.

Watching this years rise to fame of Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor who is one of the heroes of GuggenheimsWaiting for Superman,I was struck by how the targets had changed. Clarks baseball bat was aimed at the young black males who were demonized as a criminal element in the schoolyard. Rhee’s weapon was a broom to sweep away all those lousy teachers and their unions.1

But what hasn’t changed is the use of emotionally charged images and simplistic rhetoric to frame complicated issues about public education in ways that promote elite agendas.

Across the country,Waiting for Supermanhas mobilized celebrity star power and high-profile political support for an education reform campaign that is destabilizing even relatively successful schools and districts while generating tremendous upheaval in struggling ones.

The now-familiar buzzwords are charter schools, merit pay, choice, and accountability. But the larger goal, to borrow a phrase from the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a political lobby financed by hedge fund millionaires that is a chief architect of the campaign, is to burst the dam that has historically protected public education and its $600 billion annual expenditures from unchecked commercial exploitation and privatization.2

The larger goal is to burst the dam that has historically protected public education and its $600 billion annual expenditures from unchecked commercial exploitation and privatization.

In New Jersey, an odd alliance of Oprah, Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, and rock star mayor Cory Booker have put Newark in the forefront of this effort to impose business model ed reform. But the campaign is headed for a district near you, if it hasnt arrived already, and the stakes are high. I dont think it will kill public education, the dean of Seton Hall University’s College of Education told a New Jersey columnist. But it already has maimed it.3

SupermanLands in New Jersey

Supermanlanded in New Jersey last September during a two-week media circus that included the premiere of the film; two over-the-top Oprah episodes filled with self-congratulatory hype from Rhee, Guggenheim, and Bill Gates; and an appearance by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who tried (and failed) to explain why the release of the film was a Rosa Parks moment.4This all led up to the bizarre spectacle of Oprah announcing from Chicago on national TV a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to fund a takeover of the Newark public schools by Mayor Corey Booker.

Booker, a longtime proponent of private school vouchers and a member of the DFER national advisory board who has been instrumental in moving the Democrats to the right on education issues,5was on hand to accept the gift along with Chris Christie, the most anti-public education governor New Jersey has ever had. In less than a year, Christie, a Karl Rove protg and rising star in the Republican Party, has presided over $1.2 billion in cuts to state school aid while pounding teachers and their unions as greedy, overpaid public employees responsible for the states fiscal problems. When Oprah asked Zuckerberg why he chose Newark, he said, I believe in these guys.

For Christie, Zuckerberg’s gift was a chance to change the conversation after weeks of embarrassing criticism for sabotaging New Jerseys $400 million Race to the Top application. At the last minute, Christie had scrapped a deal his education commissioner Bret Schundler worked out with the New Jersey Education Association (in which Schundler said the state conceded almost nothing.) It later came out that Christie said he didn’t care about the money, because there was no way he was going to cooperate with the NJEA. When New Jersey eventually lost $400 million by three points, Christie clumsily tried to cover up the details and fired Schundler as a scapegoat.6

Zuckerberg’s donation did help Christie change the topic even though it came with a web of strings and was less than the governors combined cuts in municipal and school aid to Newark.7Spread out over five years, the grant, even when matched, will amount to about 4 percent of the districts nearly $900 million annual budget. It also will be channeled through a newly created private foundation raising a host of legal and public accountability issues.8

The day after Oprahs TV extravaganza, Guggenheim, Zuckerberg, Booker, and Christie all came to Newark for a special screening ofWaiting for Superman.The event was held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, one block from the offices of the Education Law Center (ELC) where I work.9ELC is one of the nations leading advocacy groups supporting equity in school funding and won a series of landmark court decisions requiring the state to increase aid to the poorest urban districts (more below). It represents some 300,000 students and their families in New Jerseys urban districts, including Newark.

In response to Oprahs announcement, reporters asked ELCs Executive Director David Sciarra about the governance arrangement for Newark schools, which have been under state control since 1995. Sciarra explained there was no legal basis in New Jersey for mayoral control. Neither the mayor nor the governor could make policy or spending decisions for the school district since the takeover law invested that authority in the state commissioner of education and the local advisory board. It also outlined a clear process for restoring control to a locally elected school board, which had been moving steadily forward until Zuckerberg and his checkbook arrived.10

I’m Coming

This legal analysis did not sit well with Gov. Christie, who was the featured speaker at theWaiting for Supermanshowing. Sounding more like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry than Superman, Christie declared:

You just watched that film and so did I’m going to fight as hard as I can against those who believe that that is the status quo were protecting. There is nothing more important to the future of our state and the future of our country than this fight, because this is the fight that will define all of the other fights the fight for America to remain a dominant force for good in the world.11

He continued with a veiled threat for ELC: I have a message for the lawyers who have made a lifetime out of suing us into failure: Im coming.

Christie hammered home his message that public education was failing because of bad teachers protected by their unions which, in fact, is the central message of the film.

With the film as backdrop and Guggenheim in the room, Christie hammered home his message that public education was failing because of bad teachers protected by their unions which, in fact, is the central message of the film. The governor echoed themes he has promoted across the state and the country: charters, vouchers, merit pay, and eliminating tenure constitute the urgent reform agenda not only in struggling urban districts, but everywhere as well.

A week later Christie made a campaign-type stop at a New Jersey charter school with anotherSupermanstar, Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). They spoke at Elysian Charter School in Hoboken, a successful school that stands out as the charter with the largest disparity in the state between the number of high-needs students served by the school and the much higher number in the host district.12Christie used the occasion to promote legislation that would allow for-profit charter companies to expand into New Jersey and provide $360 million in tax credits for private tuition vouchers.13

Canada was there to support the governors reform agenda. When Christie asked him to explain why the HCZs widely praised model of cradle-to-college supports works, Canada did not highlight the expanded social services, class sizes under 15 with two certified teachers, extended school days, or 11-month school years. He did not explain that HCZ receives two-thirds of its funding from private sources or that, like all the highly selective, privately subsidized charter schools featured in Guggenheims film, Canadas Promise Academies spend considerably more than the public schools around them. Instead, Canada said, We fire people who don’t work for our kids. (He didn’t add that sometimes the people he fires are the students. Several years ago an entire class of 7th graders was dismissed for poor academic performance.)14

I love this guy, said the governor.

A Wretched System?

By conventional measures, New Jerseys public schools are among the most successful in the nation. It has the highest high school graduation rate and ranks in the top five states in every grade and subject tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It is one of the few states where test score gaps among student subgroups have closed in recent years. As Linda Darling-Hammond summarized:

Today, New Jersey, a state where 45 percent of students are of color, ranks first in the nation in writing performance on NAEP and among the top five states in every other subject area. Taking demographics into account, New Jersey is arguably the highest achieving state in the nation. It has cut its achievement gap in half over the last decade, and its African American and Hispanic students outscore the average student in California. And it did so in a state that is considered a strong teachers union state, a factor that many reformers believe is reason one why systemic improvement cannot happen.15

New Jersey is also near the top in both educational investment and the equitable distribution of those resources. The court decisions won by ELC in whats known as the Abbott case produced the highest funding levels in the country for poor urban districts. For ten years, roughly between 1998 and 2008, some 30 urban districts received per-pupil parity with the richest suburban districts in a state that ranked at or near the top in school spending. They also received extra funding for supplemental programs including full-day, high-quality preschool, extended school days and years, concentrated early literacy programs, a multi-billion dollar program of school construction, and an unprecedented set of health and social service supports.

The Abbott districts were the only place in the United States where the kind of supplemental supports now universally praised in the Harlem Childrens Zone which, as noted above, gets two-thirds of its funding from private sources were mandated for all high-needs students and sustained, at least for a while, with public dollars.

As a result of these mandates, more than 40,000 3- and 4-year-olds now attend the highest quality pre-K program in the country (which Christie called babysitting during his election campaign16). Fourth-grade test score gaps have narrowed significantly, and New Jersey has some of the nations highest graduation rates for African American and Hispanic students, despite persistent gaps with white and Asian students. There are problematic aspects to each of these statistics, but they are not small accomplishments.17

To be sure, there have been many issues. The Abbott mandates never had the sustained support of the state government or the Department of Education which led to ongoing implementation and accountability concerns. Abbott did not fix the school funding system for the states other 575 school districts, which have struggled with shrinking state aid and high local property taxes. The Court decisions also did not undo NJs pervasive racial and class segregation, leaving some to debate whether Abbott was the Brown v. Board of Education of school funding cases or more like Plessy v. Ferguson, a kind of reparations for a system of separate and unequal education that remains intact even as the reparations disappear.

Perhaps most critically, the legal victories were never effectively matched by the sustained political mobilization of the communities with the most at stake and whose participation was crucial to turning the Court mandates and increased funding into successful systems of district schools. While many Abbott schools and districts made impressive gains, others did not, and the state never conducted the systematic evaluation that might explain the differences.18

Still, Abbott led to major progress after decades of separate and unequal schooling, and it was a sharp setback when first Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and then his successor Christie responded to growing state budget pressures by moving to dismantle the Abbott programs.

Christie, however, has gone much further, linking his attacks on urban schools to efforts to drive down the cost of public education statewide. While the governor has repeatedly called Newark schools an obscenity and Abbott a failure, his spokesman declared the entire system wretched. The NAEP rankings are irrelevant, an administration aide said. We should not take solace in the fact that we score well in a wretched system that fails to adequately teach such a high percentage of children.19

Even wrapped in the gloss of Guggenheims pseudo-documentary, its clear that Christies education agenda is mainly about reducing spending, cutting the cost of teacher salaries and benefits, shifting state aid from urban to suburban districts, and privatizing public services. He balanced his first budget by rolling back a millionaires tax and cutting virtually every education and social program in the state budget except state aid for charter schools. He has proposed paying for his merit pay plans with savings from firing low-rated teachers, and sees the mostly nonunion, less stable, and cheaper charter school teaching staff as a model for reducing costs.

You are masters at doing more with less, Christie told the states charter association last spring, and less is clearly the point.20Andrew Rotherham, another former DFER board member and prominent proponent of neoliberal education reform told theWall Street Journal, Christie is on to something big that the huge cost for public schools is no longer sustainable.21

New Jersey is the canary in the coal mine, added Frederick Hess, education policy director at the American Enterprise Institute.22

Bursting the Dam

DFER and its allies have spent years putting in place the dynamite charges it hopes will soon burst the dam and open the way to fundamentally changing the landscape of U.S. public education. A recent DFER strategy paper, subtitledWhy the Next 24 Months Are Critical for Education Reform Politics, describes the explicit targets as the special interests (primarily but not limited to teachers unions) that are able to assert de facto veto power over the kinds of changes that could fundamentally alter the way education is delivered in our communities.23

These are the structures DFER & Co. want to replace with a market-based, consumer-driven system. Merit pay, charters, tenure reform, and mayoral control are steps along the way.

But in fact, the dam consists of the public, nonprofit character of public schools, their control by local boards of education and districts, their funding by public dollars, and their accountably, however imperfect, to some degree of democratic oversight and decision-making. It also includes decades of effort, and at times fierce struggle, to hold schools, districts, and states accountable to mandates requiring equal access to a free public education for all children. These are the structures DFER & Co. want to replace with a market-based, consumer-driven system. Merit pay, charters, tenure reform, and mayoral control are steps along the way. As DFER sees it, Change must be pushed at all levels and all across the map in order to make the most of current opportunity for reform.24

Additional clues about where this policy train is headed come from Andy Smarick, one of Christies newly installed assistant education commissioners. Smarick is a former George W. Bush education official who served as a policy analyst for the American Enterprise and Fordham institutes, where he proposed replacing failing schools and districts with market-based reforms inspired by the corporate world. He came to NJ because, Im especially excited to get to lend a hand to the effort to improve Newarks schools. The city has a set of superb charter organizations, a remarkably strong nonprofit support infrastructure, and a hard-charging mayor.25

Smaricks signature ideas are that investing in low-performing schools is a waste of human capital and that charters are the wave of the future. He has written that our relentless preoccupation with improving the worst schools actually inhibits the development of a healthy urban public education industry. Key to developing this industry is the rapid expansion of charter schools and government subsidies for private and religious schools. To clear the way for innovation, Smarick says schools that do not meet the test scores targets in the federal No Child Left Behind law should be given only one option closure.26

Smarick does not see charters as either a vehicle for improving existing schools and districts or even a compatible co-existing sector. Chartering’s potential extends far beyond the role of stepchild or assistant to districts, he says. The only course that is sustainable, for both chartering and urban education, embraces a third, more expansive view of the movements future: replace the district-based system in Americas large cities with fluid, self-improving systems of charter schools. The system is the issue. The solution isn’t an improved traditional district; its an entirely different delivery system for public education: systems of chartered schools.27

This kind of radical right-wing social engineering is based on free-market myths like the power of churn: The churn caused by closures isn’t something to be feared, says Smarick, On the contrary, its a familiar prerequisite for industry health. Churn generates new ideas, ensures responsiveness, facilitates needed change, and empowers the best to do more. New entrants not only fill gaps, they have a tendency to better reflect current market conditions. They are also far likelier to introduce innovations: Google, Facebook, and Twitter were not products of long-standing firms.

This market mythology overlooks the substantial record of charter school failure and, at times, malpractice and corruption. It sees schools not as outposts of local democracy or centers of civic activity, but as disposable franchises that come and go as the market churns, disrupting communities and families who are viewed as consumers, not the collective citizen-managers of a public institution. The trendy references to Google and Facebook obscure less benign corporate innovations introduced by the likes of Halliburton, Enron, and BP.

Turmoil in Christies education department has led to speculation that Smarick may follow his former boss and also make an early exit. But his blueprint still bears attention:

If charter advocates carefully target specific systems with an exacting strategy, the current policy environment will allow them to create examples of a new, high-performing system of public education in urban America.

Here, in short, is one roadmap for chartering’s way forward: First, commit to drastically increasing the charter market share in a few select communities until it is the dominant system and the district is reduced to a secondary provider. The target should be 75 percent. Second, choose the target communities wisely. Each should begin with a solid charter base (at least 5 percent market share), a policy environment that will enable growth (fair funding, non district authorizers, and no legislated caps), and a favorable political environment (friendly elected officials and editorial boards, a positive experience with charters to date, and unorganized opposition).

Third, secure proven operators to open new schools. To the greatest extent possible, growth should be driven by replicating successful local charters and recruiting high-performing operators from other areas. Fourth, engage key allies like Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, and national and local foundations to ensure the effort has the human and financial capital needed. Last, commit to rigorously assessing charter performance in each community and working with authorizers to close the charters that fail to significantly improve student achievement.

In total, these strategies should lead to rapid, high-quality charter growth and the development of a public school marketplace marked by parental choice.28

Something like this scenario is now playing out in Newark with eerie echoes of Michelle Rhee’s recent tenure in D.C. Twelve percent of Newark students are already enrolled in charters. A few of these schools are high performing, but most are struggling at or below the levels of the districts public schools, despite enrolling fewer numbers of the highest needs students.29

Although the narrative of Newark school failure has been used to drive Christies agenda, the reality is much more mixed. Progress in some Newark schools has been remarkable, while in others poor school performance persists amidst concentrated poverty rates of 80 percent or more. For example, in the narrow test scores terms in which soundbite school progress is usually measured, Newark cut the urban/suburban gap in half between 2000 and 2008 at 4th grade and reduced the math gap at 11th grade by 25 percent; language arts gaps remained unchanged.30The district is also the site of some promising reform efforts, including an ambitious Global Village project initiated by the national Broader Bolder Approach and led by Pedro Noguera. The effort links seven neighborhood schools in a comprehensive inside/outside strategy of supplemental services and school-based change.31

Chartering Newark

Nevertheless, Booker and Christie support rapid charter expansion in Newark fuelled by the same foundations and key allies mentioned in Smarick’s scenario with large infusions of money from hedge fund managers, national and local foundations and now Zuckerberg.

Booker, however, has also been forced to draw some cautionary lessons from the recent defeat of his friend, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose loss in a September primary was seen as a vote of no confidence in Rhee and led to her early exit as chancellor. Rhee was rejected by a voter revolt against her dictatorial style and often arbitrary decisions to close schools, fire teachers, and impose top-own reforms that wowed business leaders but brought mostly turmoil and disruption to school communities. Like Joel Klein in New York, Rhee’s claims of success are based on illusory test score gains that evaporate upon close inspection.32But ultimately it was her inability to convince the city’s voters and parents that her business model reforms served their best interests that led to her sudden political defeat. Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated, Rhee once said. D.C. voters didn’t agree.33

Lacking the kind of Mayoral control that Fenty used to install Rhee, Booker has entered into a fragile alliance with a volatile Republican Governor, complicating relations with both NJ Democrats and the Newark electorate. He has strong opposition on the city council and faces a deepening municipal fiscal crisis that will only grow worse under Christie. To drive local school policy into unchartered territory, (pun intended) Booker needs a stronger base than a budget-cutting Governor and rich out-of-town friends.34

On Nov. 1, with the help of DFERs newly formed NJ chapter and $1 million in private funds, Booker launched the Partnership for Education in Newark designed to mobilize local support for his education plans. A two-month campaign of relentless outreach, including community meetings and door-to-door canvassing is supposed to lead to a set of reform recommendations in January. But longtime local activists are skeptical and have started their own Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools to press for things they have been fighting for for years: adequate resources, student-centered curriculum, better-prepared teachers, partnerships with parents, and new standards of accountability and new practices to assure fairness for educators, and success for all children.35Many believe the plans for the Facebook millions have already been drawn up behind closed doors. The only question, said one former member of the local advisory board, is how much more privatization will go on.

The Uses of Failure

Using the failures of public education in high-poverty urban communities as an opening for a broader policy of disinvestment and privatization has become a key link in the market reformers campaign.

Using the failures of public education in high-poverty urban communities as an opening for a broader policy of disinvestment and privatization has become a key link in the market reformers campaign. Moreover, the narrative of public education as a failing system has been strengthened in recent years by shifting national policies away from the federal governments historic role as a promoter of access and equity in public education through support for things like integration, Title I funding for high-poverty schools, and services for students with special needs, to a very different and less equitable set of mandates promoting high-stakes testing, the closing or reconstituting of schools, and the distribution of federal funds through competitive grants to winners at the expense of losers. These policies, embodied in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, have helped to erode the common ground a universal system of democratic public education needs to survive.

As Christie himself has said, This is an incredibly special moment in American history, where you have Republicans in New Jersey agreeing with a Democratic president on how to get reform.36

If public education is in crisis today, however, it is not because of generalized failure. In some respects its the nations most successful democratic institution and has done far more to reduce inequality and offer hope and opportunity than the country’s financial, economic, political and media institutions.

But its Achilles heel which in fact is the Achilles heel of the whole society is acute racial and class inequality. And while this inequality once spurred a clarion call to expand government and public sector programs to address it, today a massively well-financed set of campaigns, groups, and projects is driving an agenda that flies the banner of reform but promotes proposals that are likely to do for education what market reform has done for health care, housing, and employment: produce fabulous profits for a few and unequal access for the many.Waiting for Supermanis not only blind to this agenda, it presents some of its key architects as heroes.


1See Time magazine, Joe Clark, 2/1/88,,16641,19880201,00.htmland Michelle Rhee, 12/8/08,,16641,20081208,00.html

2Bursting the Dam:Why the Next 24 Months Are Critical for Education Reform Politics,

3N.J. education experts worry over latest brand of school reform, Robert Braun, Star Ledger, 10/18/10

4Arne Duncans Rosa Parks Moment, Jim Horn, Schools Matter

5Dana Goldstein,The Democratic Education Divide, American Prospect, 8/25/08, also see Booker Seeks Vouchers, Sarah Garland, 2/20/07. Liberal Love for Right Wing Corey Booker by Margaret Kimberly, Black Commentator, 3/30/06 #177

6Ex-education chief says Christie was focused on battle with NJEA in Race to the Top application, The Star Ledger, 7/10/10,

7Gov. Chris Christies budget cuts add to Newarks economic hardships, Star Ledger, 3/21/10 Schools in Newark, NJ Policy Perspective, 10/4/10

8How Will Newark Turn Zuckerbergs $100 Million Worth Of Facebook Shares Into Cash?Forbes, 9/23/10 $100 million gift, Paul Tractenberg North 10/3/10

9All views expressed in this article are the authors and do not reflect positions of the Education Law Center.

10Facebook-Driven Newark Overhaul Lurches Forward, Catherine Gewertz, Education Week, 10/1/10,

11Im Coming: Governor Christie on Education Reform, 9/25/10

12Elysian serves 22% free/reduced lunch students compared to 69% in its host district, Hoboken. It has 25% Hispanic students, 11% African American students and 57% white students compared to district populations of 59% Hispanic, 15% African American and 22% white. Education Law Center, Oct. 2010

13N.J. Gov. Christie pushes for more charter, 9/30/10

14Gov. Christie seeks private companies to operate charter schools, Star Ledger, 9/30/10 Harlem Schools Have Their Own ProblemsSharon Otterman 10/12/10. New York Times.

15Linda Darling-Hammond National Journal Expert Blogs, 9/4/09


17Abbott Pre-K Hailed As National Model, 12/15/09 Count, Education Week, June 2010

18Fulfilling the Promise of Abbott, David Sciarra, Star Ledger, 2/28/07, From New Jersey, Gordon MacInness, American Prospect, 6/13/10

19Education commissioner Schundler dismisses U.S. test ranking N.J. at the top in reading, math. Star Ledger, 5/10/10

20Christie says charter schools have friend in N.J. Statehouse, NJ Newsroom 3/19/10,

21Governor Christies Ultimate Test, Wall Street Journal, 10/22/10,

22Wall Street Journal, 10/22/10

23Bursting the Dam,

24Three Candles for DFER, 6/8/10 See also Ken Libbys excellent DFER Watch

25Flypaper, Thomas B. Fordham Institute blog post, 5/25/10,

26The Turnaround Fallacy, Andy Smarick, Education Next, Winter, 2010

27Wave of the Future: Why charter schools should replace failing urban schools, Andy Smarick, Education Next, Winter, 2008,

28Smarick,Wave of the Future

29Report shows fourth-grade students in N.J. public, charter schools have same passing rates, Star Ledger, 11/10/10,

30Learning from Newarks Best Schools, Gordon MacInness, NJ Spotlight, 10/19/10, data charts from Education Law Center

31Newark educators release plan to turn around low-performing schoolsStar Ledger, 9/3/10

32Michelle Rhees Testing Legacy: An Open Question, Washington Post, 11/2/10, Klein seeStandards Raised, More Students Fail Tests, New York Times, 7/28/10

33Michelle Rhees Greatest Hits, Washington Post, 10/14/10

34Booker and Christie jointly agreed to dismiss the current state-appointed Newark Superintendent, Clifford Janey, who ironically was fired by Fenty several years ago as DC schools chief so he could install Rhee. Oprah suggested that Rhee be hired to run Newark schools. Christie has offered her the job of state Education Commissioner. As of Dec.1, she had not accepted

35Draft platform, Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools

36New Jersey Education Reforms Unveiled, Star Ledger, 5/8/10,

Stan Karp ( is a Rethinking Schools editor.