News from Newark Public Schools is alarming. Earlier this month state legislators who sit on New Jersey’s Joint Council of Public Schools tag-teamed an all-out assault on Superintendent Cami Anderson: “You need to get your house in order,” sniped Senator Ron Rice; "I'm so angry,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz; “You make the assumption that you are the sharpest tool in the shed,” taunted Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver. Afterward, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka sent a letter to Anderson demanding her “immediate resignation.” Earlier in Anderson’s tenure, the School Advisory Board unanimously issued a no-confidence vote and a week later the City Council unanimously approved an otiose moratorium on all school-reform initiatives. The Newark Teachers Union pronounces defiantly (if illogically) on its homepage, “Cami’s height of hypocrisy and indifference towards the work that teachers do has reached an all time low.” What we’ve got here is a kind of inverted cult of personality, a superintendent-as-villain meme, convenient for tweets and screeds and political pandering but useless as a strategy for thinking about how to improve educational opportunities for Newark’s 40,000 students. But let’s be fair. A casual observer of school district news could be forgiven for concluding that Newark’s educational dysfunction sprang, like Athena from Zeus’s brow, fully formed upon Superintendent Anderson’s appointment three and a half years ago. A little history is in order:
- A 1927 report to the Newark schools remarks that “[t]here is no community in our country, or perhaps in any other country, that has a more complex school problem to solve than has the City of Newark.”
- Robert Curvin, civil rights leader and author of “Inside Newark” describes a century of school district corruption and patronage that has “shortchange[d] the overwhelming majority of children who enter its classrooms.”
- Education scholars Jonathan G. Silan and Carol Lippman write in Putting the Children First: The Changing Face of Newark Public Schools that “beginning in 1984 and continuing until the takeover 11 years later, the Newark Public Schools consistently failed to meet state-monitoring standards.”
- In 1993, a state report concluded that “the Newark Public School system has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children enrolled.”
- Sixty-one percent of high school students at West Side High School fail the state’s basic skills test in math.
- Forty percent of students at Barringer High School fail the state’s basic skills test in language arts.
- Four out of 10 Newark Public School students never graduate from high school.
- District fiscal managers, despite the city’s $900 million annual operating budget, will continue to confront difficulties, especially as families clamor for seats in some of the country’s best charter schools. (At last count, there are about 10,000 Newark students on charter school waiting lists.)
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey education politics and policy for WHYY’s Newsworks, NJ Spotlight and on her own blog, NJ Left Behind. An earlier version of this post originally appeared on NJ Spotlight. She is a mother of four and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, for 10 years.
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...