The Barakas disdained the Newark Teachers’ Union, which in 1970 negotiated a contract freeing teachers from “non-professional chores,” such as supervising children as they ate lunch or walked home from school. The union believed it was securing teachers’ status as white-collar professionals. But the Barakas and other black community activists saw it as white teachers disrespecting black children, refusing to care for or mentor them outside the strict confines of the classroom. Their anger was fueled by an emerging body of social science research showing that white teachers tended to judge non-white children as less academically motivated and less well behaved, regardless of their actual achievement or behavior. (Sadly, not much has changed in that regard, with a recent federal report showing national evidence of continued lowered academic expectations and harsher disciplinary practices for students of color.)
These tensions exploded on Nov. 17, 1970, when a black third grader, Matilda Gouacide, was struck by a car as she left Newark’s South Eighth Street School. The accident released all the pent up frustration in the black community—if not for the new teachers’ contract, an adult might have been on hand to supervise Matilda’s walk home. Black parents, led by Baraka and other activists, demanded that the city renege on the teachers’ contract. When Newark’s new black mayor, Ken Gibson, attempted to do so, the 2,500-member Newark Teachers’ Union went on strike for 14 weeks, the longest teacher strike in American history. Both union teachers and anti-union activists armed themselves; there were shootings, knife fights, beatings, and vandalism. One teacher died and 185 more were sent to jail. In the end, the teachers’ union retained a fairly tight hold over education policy in Newark, even after the state took over the failing district in 1995.
Now, more than 40 years after Amiri Baraka lost the battle for Newark’s schools, his son is trying again. Ras Baraka is passionate about putting Newark natives back in control of Newark’s schools, where 95 percent of the nearly 40,000 students are black or Latino.* But times have changed. In the 1960s and 1970s, community control meant black activists, parents, and politicians wresting power from a strong, white-dominated teachers’ union. In 2014, community control means black politicians allying with the much-weakened union to oppose a set of policies—charter schools, teacher merit pay, and school closings—that often seem (or are) imposed by wealthy, often white outsiders.
In her excellent recent New Yorker feature on school reform in Newark, Dale Russakoff reported the shocking fact that the going rate for educational consultants in the city is $1,000 per day, even as schools go without basic repairs and supplies. In a followup New Yorker podcast, Russakoff explained that the teams of imported consultants that descended on the city after the Zuckerberg donation “really haven’t spent much time at all in public schools in the communities. They’re really about management reforms, from the top down, that they believe will make a huge difference in the delivery of education to children. But it does leave out the most important story in education, which is what’s going on with the kids and the families in the neighborhoods.” Indeed, when I reported from Newark in 2011, I heard parents say that teen pregnancy—not low test scores—was the city’s biggest educational challenge.
Today’s national school reformers are learning a lesson teacher unionists learned, painfully, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s: They can’t assume they know what parents or local neighborhoods want from their kids’ schools. If they do, they run the risk of offending the communities they are trying to help. Those communities might turn toward politicians who seem to pay them greater heed.
The question now is how Ras Baraka will govern. His education agenda is unremarkable, a re-articulation of broadly accepted ideas such as affordable pre-K and social supports for kids and families. Yet some of Baraka’s statements hearken back to his father’s writings, and his family’s history: “While poverty and racial isolation are highly correlated with low academic achievement, this correlation should not suggest that Newark children have low cognitive abilities or deficits,” Ras Baraka wrote in his campaign literature. “Our children are not the problem; the environment we create for them is largely responsible for their academic performance.”
If Mayor Baraka succeeds in wresting control of Newark’s schools from Gov. Christie, he’ll have to do something his father never did: prove that community control of education can actually help an entire city’s children learn. If he doesn’t, community control will return to the historical dustbin as yet another failed idea to transform urban education.
Correction, May 30,2014: This article originally misstated the number of years that had passed since Amiri Baraka lost the battle for Newark’s schools. More than 40 years have passed, not more than 50. (Return.)