People's Benchmarks, People's Sovereignty: New Jersey’s Occupied School Districts
by Michelle Renee Matisons and Seth Sandronsky
New Jersey pioneered the practice of abolishing democracy in education through state takeovers of mostly minority school districts. “Not only was New Jersey the first U.S. state to implement school district takeover, it has some of the longest occupied districts in the nation.”
People's Benchmarks, People's Sovereignty: New Jersey’s Occupied School Districts
by Michelle Renee Matisons and Seth Sandronsky
This article previously appeared in Counterpunch.
It appears New Jersey never intended to return control to local districts once seized.”
With globalization, the expansion of capitalist production has doubled the planetary work force, and U.S. elites in New Jersey and other “blue and red states” are defunding urban education services and then conveniently refunding education through private market interventions. As corporate America flexes its political power by renting lawmakers at all levels, mass incarceration of the racialized populace has been a key social policy reflecting this trend of globalized class power. Like the War on Drugs that parallels it, the War on Public Schools directs public attention to a singular cause for the class inequality inherent in the capitalist system. Both “wars” masquerade as comprehensive solutions to crime and poverty, fixating on symptoms and not root causes of social problems.
Racialized class power is found everywhere in predatory reform targeting poor urban school districts. Like the War on Drugs, it disproportionately affects poor people of color, but poor urban and rural whites are casualties in both wars too. The bipartisan War on Public Schools picks up and exacerbates social outcomes created by the bipartisan War on Drugs: urban communities continually bear the brunt of a political system unified by racialized class power. Far from withering away, contemporary U.S. capitalism increasingly relies upon the state’s regulatory powers.
Police, prisons and schools in New Jersey municipalities, including deindustrialized Camden, are state sites to control and monetize superfluous populations to capital accumulation. The process used to double the world proletariat in the past 40 years is the same one that designates large swaths of the U.S. populace disposable. White supremacist capital targets inner city populations for displacement (gentrification/ school closure), warehousing (prisons, not job and educational opportunities), and premature illness and death (stress/ lack of health care/ police brutality murders).
“Education privatizers viciously prey on prevailing uncertainties and insecurities by fabricating a public education crisis.”
American workers have fewer job and union opportunities today. It was once the case that unionized occupations held great promise for U.S. families wanting to live, work, and retire comfortably. But the promise of stable union jobs has greatly diminished over the past three decades. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco acknowledges that “By 2010, the labor share of the bottom 99 percent of taxpayers had fallen to approximately 50 percent from just above 60 percent prior to the 1980s.” Meanwhile, 11.3 percent of U.S. wage and salary workers were union members in 2013 versus 20.1 percent in 1983, according to the Labor Department. That’s a 50% decrease in union membership in thirty years. Considering corporate America’s political assault on labor unions, education has become the only recognized path toward economic advancement today. Instead of boldly confronting the big picture reality of wage-labor and social opportunity degradation, education privatizers viciously prey on prevailing uncertainties and insecurities by fabricating a public education crisis.
New Jersey’s Elite
New Jersey is an important slice of the education privatization pie. According to Forbes magazine, five of the planet’s wealthiest 1,000 people live in New Jersey, and 4 of the five are financial capitalists. Like California (with its venture philanthropy money and Silicon Valley fortunes), New Jersey is also home to an ultra-wealthy elite firmly positioned to benefit from the dismantling of public education, teachers’ unions, and public pensions.
Even the smallest hint of educational equality seems to threaten New Jersey’s robust financial elite. New Jersey is a case study in predatory education reform gone wild. New York City’s Department of Education, under Mayor Bloomberg, served as the training ground for many current top NJ urban education administrators: soon-to-be former Commissioner Cerf of New Jersey Department of Education; Superintendent Anderson of Newark; Superintendent Rouhanifard of Camden; and Superintendent Lyles of Jersey City. While known nationally for having one of the “fairest systems of public school funding,” the School Funding Fairness’ National Report Card indicates the state’s education performance markers have shown an alarming slippage in the past few years due to extreme education budget cuts under Governor Christie.
Funding Fairness and State Takeover
New Jersey Department of Education pioneered the practice of taking over underperforming school districts, and this has become an important education reform tool since No Child Left Behind galvanized the War on Public Schools over a decade ago. In New Jersey, school district takeover was initiated in response to equalizing funding formulas for the Garden State’s poor school districts. In the legal case Abbott v. Burke (described as the most important legal decision on education equity since Brown v. the Board of Education), The Education Law Center argued against New Jersey’s discriminatory school funding formula. They won in a 1985 State Supreme Court decision. This led to “Abbott districts” designated by educational adequacy and concentration of poverty. Out of the 590 operating New Jersey school districts, 31 are Abbott districts today.
The Abbott ruling was controversial because it involved redistributing state tax money to poor school districts. What constitutes designation as an Abbott district? The Department of Education website lists three themes: Abbott designation consistently spotlights poorer urban districts; Abbott designation rests on a two-part test, educational adequacy and concentrated poverty; and Abbott designation is a remedy, not a reward.
In 1987, at the same time Abbott was in the courts, the legislature passed the “state-operation law” which established criteria to place underperforming districts under state control. (Apparently, the state couldn’t bear redistributing money without having control over certain recipient school districts). According to the Department of Education website, failure to meet certain monitoring indicators are used to determine a state operated (or occupied!) school district (SOSD): “These indicators assess a variety of district-level performance issues, such as student performance on state standardized tests, student attendance and dropout rates, the condition of school facilities, and school-level planning requirements, among others”.
The Takeover Pioneer
Today there are twenty-four states that allow state takeover of school districts. Not only was New Jersey the first U.S. state to implement school district takeover, it has some of the longest occupied districts in the nation. (The state has controlled all Newark School District functions, except operations, for almost twenty years, with a locally elected board serving an “advisory” role.) Today, New Jersey is throttled by debates over education reform maneuvers, such as school closures and charter school initiatives, especially in SOSD. In a previous article, we detail how Newark struggles under long term state control and big money from prominent donors like Eli Broad and Mark Zuckerberg. Here, we look at state takeover details because takeover has become a drastic predatory reform weapon of choice.
According to Joseph O. Oluwole and Preston C. Green III, No Child Left Behind dramatically increased state takeovers: “By 1989, six states had enacted State takeover laws… By 2004, the number increased to twenty-nine states.” While we use New Jersey as the case study here, this practice has far-reaching implications for those seeking educational justice through the public school movement.
In many ways, the fight for New Jersey public schools is the fight for local sovereignty over SOSD daily functions. New Jersey’s four SOSD differ in the amount of time they’ve been state operated, the local school board’s role (elected or appointed), and how responsibilities are split between the state and the local districts. Jersey City was the first to be seized (1989), with Paterson (1991), Newark (1995) and Camden (2013) following suit later. Of these four cities, Newark’s student enrollment is the highest (38,000), followed by Paterson (29,000), Jersey City (28,000) and Camden (13,700) (http://www.state.nj.us/education/archive/abbotts/sosd/).
According to the New Jersey Department of Education, districts are under varying degrees of state control. In Jersey City, the district is now under partial state control and a locally elected board oversees governance and finance. The state is responsible for curriculum, operations, and personnel. A state-appointed professional oversees the district, but a superintendent runs daily operations. In Paterson, the state is responsible for all district functions and a locally elected board serves an advisory role. The state is responsible for all Newark’s district functions except operations, and a locally elected board serves an advisory role. The state is responsible for all Camden’s district functions.
Takeover puts states in a clumsy position. On the one hand, state departments of education must show enough improvement in seized districts to justify their involvement, but not enough improvement to lose control. It appears New Jersey never intended to return control to local districts once seized. Instead, the state instituted a maze of exhausting bureaucratic schemes that’s paying off handsomely now for invested education reformers!
“Takeover has become a drastic predatory reform weapon of choice.”
There is a legally sanctioned process for SOSD seeking to regain local control, but the Commissioner of Education calls the shots here. 2005 and 2007 legislation established five benchmarks for regaining local SOSD control: instruction and program, fiscal management, operations, personnel, and governance. There is widespread discord over how these benchmarks are recognized by the state. According to a 2011 New York Times article, Newark has been well on its way to satisfying these benchmarks: “…by June, Newark had done so in all but instruction… Jersey City has had approval over finances and governance since 2007, while Paterson remains fully under state control, though it passed benchmarks last year for governance, operations and personnel.” But there is little movement on recognizing these achievements.
Considering education is such a highly lucrative new market, what incentive is there for a state to give control back to a district? The more cooks in the kitchen, the harder it is to privatize services. State control offers serious tangible benefits to the Christie administration. Given the state’s deep and growing ties to venture philanthropy deals, district takeover delivers a captive audience for social experimentation. Recently seized Camden, New Jersey is the freshest example of how the state takeover method complements today’s experimental education reform agenda quite well.
“While there are some great teachers and educators in Camden, the system itself has proven undeniably to be broken and incapable of change on its own,” said GOP Gov. Chris Christie in a March 25, 2013 press statement. “We can no longer stand by or take ineffective and incremental steps while thousands of our children are so profoundly failing year after year.” A key assumption here, spoken in the bipartisan language of education reformers, is Christie cares about Camden’s kids. He’s deeply worried that public schools are failing them and he understands this problem so well that citizens play no democratic role in finding a solution.
As proof of the assertion “Camden’s education system is broken,” the statement cites, in part, students’ standardized test scores in math and English that “drastically underperform the state average.” Christie blames this test score gap on Camden school district’s subpar “governance, leadership and operations,” while the real test score gap causes remain out of sight and mind for education leaders. According to the Federal Census Bureau, the rate of Camden residents living below the official poverty line was 38.6 percent from 2008-2012: in New Jersey it was 9.9 percent and nationally it was 14.9 percent. Translation: the number of Camden residents living in poverty is almost four times greater than in the rest of New Jersey and about two and a half times greater than the overall U.S. average. This poverty also has Camden earning the top 2013 spot for highest crime rate in cities with populations from 75,000 to 99,999 people.
Just as the War on Drugs pushes punitive measures to supposedly curb crime, the War on Public Schools pushes education privatization measures to supposedly combat chronic poverty. Christie has not launched a large-scale job-training program: all his eggs remain squarely in the education basket. And since this is the case, he’s making some very revealing decisions. Consider the recent appointment of young and inexperienced Paymon Rouhanifard as Camden Superintendent. A former Wall Street analyst and one time teacher for the union-busting pro-privatization Teach for America, Rouhanifard is a controversial face for Camden’s new education era. He’s a simple lapdog who will follow Christie’s orders: namely, to “move with a sense of urgency” in privatizing Camden’s schools. Just what Christie wants these days!
“The number of Camden residents living in poverty is almost four times greater than in the rest of New Jersey.”
Christie explains the urgency of Camden’s situation: “Decisive action and reform are desperately needed, not just to prevent students from falling further and further behind, but to overcome the current obstacles that are preventing children from receiving the educational tools they need and instead give the children of Camden real access to the meaningful, high-quality education that they deserve.” The “Camden Commitment” is their recently announced local education initiative.
This reduction of anti-poverty measures to education initiatives further institutionalizes state control over Camden public schools. Moreover, this is a strongly bipartisan political trend. State Senator Donald Norcross (D-5) introduced Senate Bill 3173, the “Urban Hope Act” on December 15, 2011. However, far from being a bill intended to address the unique needs of area residents, it’s an imported model from an organization that gained media attention as the authors of the now infamous “Stand Your Ground” gun laws. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, SB 3173 resembles model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-backed group in Washington, DC, that produces “model legislation” for statehouses across the U.S.: a cut-and-paste preschool-like task for adult lawmakers like Gov. Christie and Sen. Norcross. The language in Sen. Norcross’ SB 3173 permits the takeover of failed school districts, expands the growth of charter schools, and stipulates that classroom teachers in these brave, new “renaissance school projects” may not bargain collectively with employers.
If this is not considered a “bipartisan class attack” on Camden parents, students and teachers, we may need to abandon the term. Of course, this linguistic process is precisely what education reformers like Gov. Christie and Sen. Norcross are doing by dismantling public education and rebranding it as a private commodity to buy and sell in the marketplace. Civil rights language is also a central element of this rebranding process. A recent Huffington Post editorial by Newark Superintendent, Cami Anderson, arrogantly proclaims opposition to her education reforms cements racial inequality: “Five years from now, history will show we either succumbed to local and national forces to cement inexcusable racial and socio-economic inequities — or that we banded together to forge a new future.” According to her logic, the public education movement is racist!
While New Jersey education administrators portray themselves as grassroots focused and “band[ing] together to forge a new future”–ALEC plays service provider to elected officials. In Newark’s Star-Ledger of April 1, 2011, journalist Salvador Rizzo corroborates that Gov. Christie likes to use ALEC bills to reform public schools: “Drawing on bills crafted by the council, on New Jersey legislation and dozens of e-mails by Christie staffers and others,” Rizzo reported, “The Star-Ledger found a pattern of similarities between ALEC’s proposals and several measures championed by the Christie administration.”
The People’s Benchmarks
“When you have a hostile action like a takeover, it’s harder to make real improvement and gain the confidence of parents and teachers.”
–Bessie White, a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the initial takeover of the Newark School District, 1998
“You act like we’re in a state of martial law… You act like you deployed the army on us.”
–Newark parent Natasha Allen to Superintendent Cami Anderson, January 28, 2014
In New Jersey, Governor Christie imports legislative initiatives from ALEC, a corporate ideological entity specializing in racialized class bludgeoning to benefit the ultra-wealthy. His new education leaders, imported from training grounds such as the Broad Foundation and neighboring New York City’s own War on Public Schools, hone their transparently opportunistic leadership style by stealing civil rights rhetoric to mask the true spirit behind these education initiatives: greed. Education privatization aficionado Chris Cerf recently announced he’s resigning his Commissioner of Education post to return to the private sector—his one true love—in an education technology endeavor, Amplify Insight. This leaves many scratching their heads about who will ascend next to this most esteemed position of malfeasant hypocritical education leadership.
Instead of waiting around for the education reformers’ next moves, people suffering under hostile state takeovers can establish their own benchmarks to evaluate the state’s performance. There are clear themes running throughout the small body of academic scholarship assessing existing school district takeovers. (For a comprehensive list of academic references, see Allison Benoit’s 2013 study “Student Achievement and Emergency Managers”. Recurring themes in the literature include: the need for cooperative working relationships, clear evidence of improved academic performance, zero tolerance for racism, and funding fairness (not corporate strings).
It is difficult to imagine a school district ever receiving a state takeover as good news. No one likes to be told they’re doing a poor job and that an outsider can do it better. Since acrimonious relationships between state leadership and local school districts frequently instigate and follow takeovers, student academic performance can be negatively impacted. Research surrounding the academic impact of state interventions has been controversial and largely inconclusive. Nevertheless, some researchers contend political school district battles influence academic performance. Why have takeovers increased over the years when state departments of education cannot provide clear evidence that takeovers conclusively improve academic performance? Evidence suggests other anti-democratic motives are at play here way beyond improving academics.
As long as school district takeovers have been around, they have been mired in allegations of racial discrimination. Beth Reinhard addresses racism in “Racial Issues Cloud State Takeovers” from January 14, 1998: “Racial and voting rights skirmishes are complicating some government takeovers of troubled school systems and raising new questions about the wisdom of such intervention. From Compton, Calif., to Cleveland, overhauls of at least eight elected school boards have provoked lawsuits and accusations asserting that the takeovers singled out predominantly minority districts and violated the rights of voters to choose their local education policymakers.”
“People suffering under hostile state takeovers can establish their own benchmarks to evaluate the state’s performance.”
Since the majority of state controlled school districts are populated by poor people of color, there is a strong perception of discrimination. Takeover supporters argue districts are innocently targeted because of academic achievement or mismanagement—not racial composition. In their comprehensive study on the subject, Oluwole and Green verify racial composition is an undeniable concern in school takeovers: “In 2004, over 50% of students in 74% of the districts taken over were minorities. Additionally, 63% of the 12 schools taken over as of 2004 were “in central cities (large and midsize) or in the urban fringe of a large city. All but three of these districts had high minority populations, ranging from 51% to 96%…”.
Racism is definitely alleged in New Jersey, where takeover legislation paralleled the Abbott fair funding decision. These days, the concept of fair funding is laughable as Christie cuts the education budget but accepts hush-hush Broad grant money conditional on Christie’s own reelection.
A February 5, 2014, Education Law Center press release states: “From 2007 through 2009, school funding in the Garden State was the second most fair, or “progressive,” in the nation. High poverty districts were funded at levels approximately 40% greater than low poverty districts. In 2010, the level dropped to 25%, and by 2011, it fell even further to 7%, driving New Jersey from 2nd to 12th place nationally. Overall funding levels also declined, with average per pupil funding in 2011 more than $1,300 below the 2007 average”. The article also explains that Christie made mid-year cuts in 2010, and then he cut $1.2 billion in 2011. These cuts disproportionately affected low-income districts. The State Supreme Court directed Christie to restore $500 million to former Abbott districts, but other poor districts did not get funding restored.
The racial dynamics of school district takeovers have provoked speculation and frustration since takeover was first instituted. Today, motives also come under scrutiny as only 5% of Camden’s population is white. Speaking of racially motivated school district takeovers, briefly consider the case of Michigan. Michigan passed its first takeover related law in 1988. In 1990, the state gained “…explicit legal authority to intervene in school districts in the case of severe financial crisis…This controversial law was finally utilized in school districts, in the late 1990s when Detroit Public Schools became the first school district in the state to go through a state takeover.”
Flash forward to Michigan’s controversial Education Achievement Authority (EAA). Created in 2009, Michigan’s State School Reform/Redesign Office contracted with the EAA to transfer failing schools into EAA jurisdiction. However, critics contend that the EAA singles out majority non-white urban schools when suburban and rural schools are failing as well.
The battle against discriminatory takeovers reaches far beyond New Jersey’s borders. Michigan is another glaring example, and Louisiana, Texas, Illinois, Ohio, and Tennessee offer more examples. People’s Benchmarks for assessing state takeovers –cooperative relationships, clear evidence of improved academic performance, zero tolerance for racism, and fair funding (not big money)—provide proactive organizational principles in this white-hot fight against predatory education reform everywhere.
Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D., is an independent scholar doing education research in the Florida panhandle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seth Sandronsky is a journalist in Sacramento. Email email@example.com.
Author’s Note: The authors would like to thank long-time activist and New Jersey resident Bob Witanek for his initial contact on New Jersey education issues that led to our “Cerf-dumb” article, and his ongoing research support. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.