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Debating Newark School Reform

March 21, 2013

The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC

Debating Newark School Reform

NJPAC was filled last night with reporters, panelists and community members drawn to a forum called “Which Way NJ School Reform in Newark.” But it was students from the newly formed Newark Students Union who stole the show.

After nearly two hours of mostly softball questions from reporters to a panel dominated by Mayor Cory Booker and State Supt. Cami Anderson, it was left to the students to raise the question of ending the 18-year state takeover of Newark public schools that has disenfranchised the community and repeatedly undermined reform efforts.

 Amazingly, none of the journalists, including moderator Brian Lehrer of WNYC public radio, asked a single question about the state’s role in the district until frustrated students began chanting from the audience towards the end of the program: “Newark students, stand up, fight back!” The students read from a leaflet they had been distributing during a pre-forum demonstration outside the performing arts center. The leaflet said:

“STOP the budget cuts. STOP the privatization of PUBLIC education. STOP attacking our teachers. STOP attacking their unions, their tenure, and their jobs. STOP closing OUR schools. STOP funding charter over public, charter does not mean better. STOP your educational reform and listen to the public.” 

While most of the chanting students were removed from the audience, as the forum drew to a close one student did get to ask Booker whether he supported local control of Newark schools and why he didn’t speak out when NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf blocked the restoration of local control last year. Booker equivocated, claiming he supported the idea of local control despite his failure to oppose the state takeover or challenge Cerf’s decision.

The reporters did focus on issues raised by the district’s growing charter enrollment, which has polarized parents and led to school closings, budget cuts and staff reductions. Booker and Mashea Ashton, CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund were clearly uncomfortable with the charter vs. public framing of the opening questions.

But given that the state controls the district, is the sole authorizer of charter schools, and has repeatedly promoted charter expansion over the objections of the local advisory board and community protests, the failure to give more attention to what Newark State Senator Ron Rice has called the state’s “occupation” was a major omission.

Still the forum did put the spotlight on Newark education issues and reflected high community interest in the topic. It also provided a focus for the Newark Student Union (@newarkstudents) who tweeted, “Tonight was a breakthrough in our community in regards to the students of Newark standing up and having their voices heard loud and clear!”

Lehrer’s program will run excerpts from the forum Thursday at 11am and post them on the show’s website: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/2013/mar/21/debating-newark-school-reform/

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