Trying to Divine Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s Stance on Charter Schools

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Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s public education agenda is making news this week. NJ Spotlight reports today on the “growing relationship – if not outright alliance” between the Mayor and Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf, an education reform hero. But Eric Dawson, who blogs at The Newark Report, analyzes the two-faced politics behind a letter that Baraka recently wrote to N.J. Education Commissioner David Hespe and concludes that the Mayor reveals an “utter unwillingness to support the Newark parents of public charter schools.”

So where is Baraka exactly on the hot issue of reform-minded charter expansion in Newark? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. That’s because he’s caught between the power of the anti-reform forces in Newark — the Newark Teachers Union and its affiliated lobbying groups (backed by doxer Bob Braun)  — and the power of the parents, many of whom wait for open charter seats. (Currently one-third of Newark’s 45,000 public school students attend charters and waiting lists, reportedly, have 10,000 names.)

Community support for charters isn’t universal. But it’s strong because the best open-admissions public schools in the city are charter schools.

Baraka won election last year by scapegoating former Superintendent Cami Anderson’s heartfelt if ham-handed  reform efforts; on victory night the union-affiliated NJ Working Families super PAC gushed, “Baraka Win a Big Blow to Corporate Education Reform!”

But Dale Russakoff in The Prize recounts how Baraka, while principal of Newark’s Central High School,  “mounted an aggressive turnaround strategy, using some of the instructional techniques pioneered by the reform movement. He said he was particularly influenced by a superintendent in a high-poverty district in Colorado who was trained by philanthropist Eli Broad’s leadership academy — an arm of the ‘conspiracy’ Baraka the politician inveighed against.”

Yet cryptic Baraka, reports Dawson (a son of the late Newark politician Carl Sharif) wrote a letter to Hespe on December 17th that says, “I am writing to request that, at this time, your Office not approve any further expansion of enrollment in these or any other Newark Charter Schools…”

It’s worth noting that Baraka’s letter echoes a report written two weeks earlier by the Education Law Center, sworn enemy of charter expansion because school choice infringes on the Center’s school funding legacy.

Also note that the Newark City Council, of which Baraka was once a member, passed a resolution by a vote of 7-2 last May that opposes the charter moratorium bill pushed by Baraka, Education Law Center, NJEA, NJ Working Families, and Save Our Schools-NJ.  The bill, recently the focus of a parent pro-charter lobbying day in Trenton, would shut down all charter school growth for three years.

It’s great that Supt. Cerf and Mayor Baraka are working so well together and have found common ground. From Spotlight:

“We don’t always agree, in fact, we disagree a lot,” Cerf said. “But I am consistently struck by this mayor’s principle and his commitment and the transition he has made to leading this city in the direction of greatness.
“We’re moving forward and following the QSAC [N.J. school accountability rubric] model,” Baraka said yesterday. “It’s been fair. It’s also been intensive work that is happening, where before this, they were not doing the work.”

But Dawson is right on target. The Mayor is trying to have it both ways, glad-handing Cerf while penning a letter that was, says Dawson, “cowardly issued… during the Holiday Season.”
He continues,

Rather than be transparent about his anti-charter sentiment, the Mayor decided to hide. In doing so he was able to initially dodge concerns from actual voting parents or create any more controversies for himself within Newark. 

The last two weeks of the year are often a time when elected leaders slyly address controversial policies and initiatives. The thought process is simple. It is late December, people are occupied with the Holidays, kids are out of school, families are celebrating, and some people are even out of town. 

This “December Surprise” was a win-win for the Mayor. He was able to pull one over on the residents of Newark and pay back some political debts, without causing any concern from Newarkers.

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