In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the takeover of the New Orleans schools in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina as a grand experiment perpetrated by policy makers on a city so vulnerable nobody could protect the public assets that should have been rescued. Klein concludes, “I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, “disaster capitalism.” (The Shock Doctrine, p. 6)
When we think about the Shock Doctrine applied to education, New Orleans—where the schools were charterized and all the teachers fired—is the example that comes to mind, but our test-and-punish system under the No Child Left Behind Act has branded the schools in our poorest cities as “failures” and created a crisis atmosphere that has also made way for the application of the Shock Doctrine. Back in 2010, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, working with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, seized such an “opportunity” and set up Newark for an experiment in disaster capitalism; he staged his Shock Doctrine live on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg handed Booker $100 million to fix Newark’s schools. In a recent article Washington Post education writer Lyndsey Layton summarizes what happened as the “One Newark” plan was put in place by Christie and his appointed overseer Newark school superintendent, Cami Anderson. Public schools were closed and charter operators brought in. Union agreements were abrogated. It has been easy to move quickly in Newark, where the schools have been under state control for twenty years and residents have been unable to establish sufficient checks and balances despite the presence of an elected school board that lacks virtually any power. Cami Anderson has not bothered to attend any meetings of Newark’s school board for well over a year now.
Layton describes One Newark:
“The plan is the signature initiative crafted by Anderson, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie (R) in 2011 to run Newark Public Schools. The state seized control of Newark Public Schools in 1995 amid academic and financial failure, but two decades of state control has resulted in little progress. One Newark, which fully took effect in the current academic year (2014-2015), essentially blew up the old school system. It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices. It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools. . . With Christie’s blessing—and freed from the need for approval from a local school board—Anderson pushed through a raft of changes, many of which were untested. . . As a result, many families saw their children spread among multiple schools or sent across town. The scattering has been problematic for a city divided along gang lines, and where many residents don’t own cars. The end of neighborhood schools meant that newcomers no longer had a right to attend the school down the street. The new citywide lottery, relying on a computer algorithm, forced many students to change schools while dividing siblings in some cases between different schools in different parts of the city. Meanwhile, state test scores have stayed flat or even declined. . .”
Local elected officials have tried unsuccessfully to protect the right of parents and citizens of Newark to control their public schools. Senator Ronald Rice, chair of the New Jersey Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, was able only after repeated attempts to require Cami Anderson to appear before his committee to defend her plan, but she refused to discuss matters of substance with his committee. A civil rights complaint was filed earlier this year with the U.S. Department of Education. A group of high school students occupied the offices of Superintendent Cami Anderson for several days in February. U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., Newark’s representative to Congress, recently petitioned Cami Anderson in a formal letter to respond to the concerns of his constituents: “Your failure to respond and to engage in a meaningful dialogue on behalf of all Newark students is very disappointing to my constituents and me. There is a crisis situation going on in Newark.” And just this week, in an attempt to gain leverage, Newark’s new mayor, Ras Baraka, a high school principal elected on a pro-public school platform in the spring of 2014, was able to get his own “Children’s First Team” of three elected to the local elected board of education. All five of the elected board members support Baraka and oppose Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan. You can read earlier posts about Newark here.
Despite the protests, Cami Anderson, has been rewarded not only with Christie’s support but also with a bonus. She has also announced plans to expand One Newark. Bob Braun, former education writer for the Newark Star Ledger, recently blogged: “Three related events are merging into a crisis for the public schools and their supporters. The first is Anderson’s decision to designate nine more schools—including Weequahic and East Side high schools—as ‘turnaround’ schools that will force employees either to give up their jobs or their contract-guaranteed working conditions. The second is Anderson’s insistence that the state grant her permission to ignore employee seniority rights so she can lay off veteran teachers to meet a budget deficit of up to $100 million that she caused. The third is the arguably felonious refusal of the state to insist that Anderson abide by the terms of the waiver of the federal No Child Left Behind requirements.”
The Newark Teachers Union just announced a formal protest; teachers will no longer work extra hours before or after school but will picket to bring attention to the problems with One Newark. Naomi Nix of the Star Ledger interviewed a union leader who reports: “(T)he teachers will participate in ‘informational picket lines’ during non-school day hours to explain their concerns to the public.” Braun reports that Mayor Ras Baraka supports the teachers’ action. Dr. Lauren Wells, Baraka’s chief school officer met with teachers and told them: “Enough is enough. This is not how you change the schools. We support you.” Braun adds: “Five members of the Newark school board also showed up to show their support—leading to the possibility that Newark might be the scene of the first teachers’ strike supported by its local school board. The state has stripped the board of most of its powers, but the members do act as a barometer of anti-state feeling.”
Braun would agree, I think, that Newark’s schools exemplify a Shock Doctrine—the imposition of school choice, public school closures, expansion of charters, and attacks on unionized teachers—on a community whose citizens lack power. He writes: “The last year has been its own moment of truth about the respect shown to leaders of color—even prominent, elected leaders like Rice and Baraka and members of the school board. In a state run by Christie and allies like Steve Sweeney and Joseph DiVincenzo and George Norcross, the concerns of black and brown political, religious, and civic leaders simply do not matter.” Shock Doctrine educational experiments are characterized by their imposition by the powerful on other people’s children.
Chris Christie has been very clear about Newark: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark—not them.”
Before retiring recently, Jan Resseger served for fifteen years as the (lay) Minister for Public Education and Witness in the United Church of Christ's Justice and Witness Ministries. With Jan's leadership the denomination worked for policy to improve, not punish, the public schools; reduce testing; and ensure attention to vast resource opportunity gaps. She is a featured writer for Public School Shakedown and she blogs at janresseger.wordpress.com.
Image credit: NJ.com