The Long, Ugly History Behind the Battle for Newark’s Schools

Getting schooled.
May 21 2014 2:05 PM

Who Gets to Control Newark’s Schools?

A rabble-rousing new mayor wants to undo the reforms that Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg brought to town.

Newark Ras Baraka
Newark's new mayor, Ras Baraka, at an election party on May 13, 2014.

Photo by Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

In Newark last week, high school principal and city councilman Ras Baraka was elected mayor. Tuesday Baraka unveiled his agenda for educational “local control”: a return of the Newark school district to city management, and a total rejection of the school reform policies embraced by his predecessor Cory Booker, Gov. Chris Christie, and their philanthropic patron Mark Zuckerberg, whose $100 million donation has reshaped the city’s educational landscape in the direction of new charter schools and teacher evaluation and pay based on student standardized test scores.

Those closely watched reforms, funded by corporate donors and supported by centrist politicians with national ambitions, are “taking away our right to democratically govern our public schools,” Baraka has said. Instead of shutting down failing schools and turning their buildings over to national charter chains, he argues that Newark should send even more money to struggling neighborhood principals for a longer school day, afterschool programs, bonuses to reward teachers who work in the most challenging schools, and the hiring of more guidance counselors and social workers.

On Tuesday evening, student protesters staged a sit-in at a school advisory board meeting, bringing it to a disruptive close. The students demanded that superintendent Cami Anderson, a Booker/Christie/Zuckerberg ally, resign. The protesters were no doubt inspired by their new mayor—talk of taking back the city’s schools is the rhetoric that won Baraka the election.

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With Baraka’s win, Bill de Blasio’s November victory in New York, and former Washington, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty’s stinging loss in 2010, due in large part to school chancellor Michelle Rhee’s unpopularity, the local control movement is having a moment. It’s not exactly new: Ras Baraka’s father, Amiri Baraka, led a fiery charge for community control of Newark’s schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But while Amiri Baraka was a virulent critic of union teachers, his son’s biggest ally has been organized labor, including the Newark Teachers’ Union. So, what’s changed? Why did one Baraka enrage the unions in 1970 by supporting local control of schools, while, 44 years later, another Baraka earned Big Labor’s endorsement—and hundreds of thousands of dollars of their funding—with a local control agenda?

Amiri Baraka died in January. Today he is most often remembered as the controversial former New Jersey poet laureate, who claimed in verse that Israel had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. But before all that, he was a beatnik, a black nationalist—and an education reformer.

Born Everett Leroy Jones, Amiri Baraka grew up in Newark and attended the racially integrated Barringer High School, where he worked on the school newspaper and eventually earned a scholarship to Howard University. He later joined the Air Force and landed in Greenwich Village, where he began his career as a political agitator, poet, and playwright.  

After Malcolm X’s death in 1965, Jones changed his name to Amiri Baraka, separated from his white, Jewish wife, and returned to Newark, where he hoped to live out his emerging black separatist ideals. Like other young black intellectuals who had attended integrated schools, including Stokely Carmichael (a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science), Baraka looked back on his own education not as a leg up into the meritocracy, but as a time of psychological devastation, in which he and other black children were forced to come face-to-face each day with white racism. Baraka pinned much of the blame on white, unionized teachers—60 percent of the teaching force in Newark—whom he said disdained black culture and believed black students were unintelligent. “Our children in most of these so called schools are not being taught anything,” he wrote in a 1967 essay. “And when they are taught something it is usually to hate themselves.” (Baraka once wrote that “a teacher sends a pupil home from Central”—the school his son Ras Baraka would later lead as principal—by telling him, “Catholics is the best religion and Stokely Carmichael, Adam Powell, and 'Cassius Clay' ain't no good!”)

The solution, Baraka wrote, was to hire only black teachers and principals to work in black children’s schools. “Let us get our own!” he declared. In another essay, he wrote, “Who controls your children's minds controls your life even after the death of your body. We must make sure our children are Black ... not only by Race, and Culture, but through Consciousness. Education is the development of consciousness.”

Baraka served on an advisory school board tasked with directing money from Title I, the federal education program, to Newark’s poorest public school students. But he and his second wife, Amina Baraka, withdrew their own kids from the public system, enrolling them in a private school with a Black Nationalist curriculum. As activists, the Barakas hoped to enact a similar Afrocentric curriculum in the public schools.

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.)

Dana Goldstein is the author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, and a staff writer at The Marshall Project. 

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