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Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Elected After Popular Uprising, Defends Local Control of Schools
RAS BARAKA is a longtime educator credited with turning around Newark’s Central High School as principal from 2007 to 2014. His father, the late Amiri Baraka, was a global activist and noted poet.
The education system of Newark, New Jersey has faced years of crisis, with high dropout rates, low-performing schools and a state takeover dating back two decades. In 2010, Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Democratic Mayor Cory Booker of Newark and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg joined forces to revamp Newark schools. But despite trumpeting their plan as a model for national school reform, millions of dollars initially flowed not to the schools but to outside consultants, most of them white and with no ties to Newark’s majority African-American community. “A lot of [the money] went to consultants,” says Baraka. “Not much went toward teacher training, toward teachers and classrooms to give them better resources and opportunities for kids in the schools. I think now because there has been a lot of uproar and a lot of discussion and because we have a new person in charge of that when I became mayor, we began to talk about the last bit of money and how we get to spend that. Hopefully, use it for the benefits of the children.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Speaking of outsiders affecting your city, your school system has been under state control for decades now, and I wanted ask you about this whole issue because you ran, really one of your main planks of your campaign was to bring back parental control into the schools. What has been the effect of the state control for all of these years? Because, supposedly, they came in to make things better in the school system.
MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Right, that’s what they always say.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what have you been able to do in the time you have been in office to regain control of the public schools for the people of Newark?
MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Well, right now we have something called an education success board that we created whose job it is to transition Newark back into local control. So I would imagine in about a year we should have control back after 20 years of state control, should be up to get local control back. I think the fight now is what local control is when look like. And all of the players in the city now and outside the city who want to influence the city have now begun to put troops on the ground to push their idea of what local control should look like, whether it’s charter schools, traditional schools, who’s in charge, elected school board, appointed school board. So that fight is really gearing up.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the money that’s gone into the New Jersey schools, or hasn’t. Of course, high dropout rates, low performing schools dating back to the takeover, what, two decades ago. In 2010, Republican Governor Chris Christie, Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg joined forces to revamp Newark schools. They made their announcement on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
OPRAH WINFREY: Mayor Booker, what’s the big news?
MAYOR CORY BOOKER: Well, we have been talking for quite some time about creating a bold new paradigm for educational excellence in the country to show the way, to put the people of the city of Newark, really, in the driver’s seat and in the focal point, and to work to get all of the assets and resources we need to give to them to succeed.
OPRAH WINFREY: So Governor Christie, what are you committing to? What are you committing to?
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: What I’m committing to is changing the schools in the city where I was born and spent the first years of my life. Mayor Booker is going to be the point person, our lead guy in Newark in helping to develop this entirely new plan of how to reform the education system in Newark and create a national model. I’m empowering him to do that, I’m in charge of the public schools in the city of Newark as Governor. I’m going to empower Mayor Booker to develop that plan and to implement it with the superintendent of schools that we’re going to pick together.
OPRAH WINFREY: I think that is so fantastic. So, Mr. Zuckerberg, what role are you playing in all of this? Are the rumors true, will there be a check offered at some point? Yes.
MARK ZUCKERBERG: Yeah, I have committed to starting the Startup:Education Foundation whose first project will be a $100 million challenge grant.
OPRAH WINFREY: $100 million?
AMY GOODMAN: That is a clip from “Oprah” in 2010. despite trumpeting their plan as a model for national school reform, the story of what followed emerges as a cautionary tale. With matching funds from other donors, millions of dollars initially flowed not to the schools, but to outside consultants, most of them white and with no ties to Newark’s majority African-American community. Some consultants made up to $1000 a day. While some students benefited from placement in the higher-funded charter schools, the Newark school system’s overall performance level fell even lower. Last month on Democracy Now! we spoke to author Dale Russakoff who recounts Newark’s reform efforts in her new book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?” She talked about how concerned Newark parents organized against the educational changes, and described the role they played in electing our guest today, now Newark Mayor Mayor Ras Baraka.
DALE RUSSAKOFF: The political uprising ended up almost, you know — well, not single-handedly, but significantly helping to elect Ras Baraka, who was a high school principal who ran for mayor almost exclusively on a platform of stopping these reforms. And even of the education reform movement put over $5 million into the campaign of his opponent, he won significantly just because of this grassroots uprising.
AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Baraka, what happened?
MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Well, I think that’s partly true, kind of simplifying it, but ultimately that is the case. They did put $5 million or more in my opponent’s coffers. We kind of pushed for more democratic control not over just education, but over the city period. More say so by Newarkers, more jobs for Newarkers, more control over our lives in the city and education was at the center of that. And it still is as a matter of fact.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to the $100 million?
MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Well, I mean, you said most of it, right? So a lot of it went to consultants. Eight something million dollars of it went to teacher contract, which fought to get rid of tenure, extend the day, give teachers bonuses, all kinds of things like that. So $80 million of it went toward the teacher contract. Not much went towards pedagogy, went towards teachers, went towards, you know, teachers in classrooms to give them better resources and opportunities for kids in the school. So money wasn’t spent in that way in the beginning. I think now because there has been a lot of uproar, a lot of discussion and because we have a new person in charge of that and I became mayor, we began to talk about the last bit of money and how we get to spend that, and hopefully, use it for the benefits of the children.
Just recently, we used it to help expand summer jobs. We gave teachers some money and we talked about giving teachers money in the classroom. They began to do that. Began to create a pipeline for students to move from high school to college, begin talking about that. So hopefully, we’re trying to get them to use the remainder of that money for community schools, to invest in community schools. So, it’s a struggle, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to ask you, when you see something like this with Oprah, with Cory Booker, with Chris Christie, Mark Zuckerberg, talking all about how they’re going to reform the school system, although, supposedly, the Governor should have done that years ago since he was in charge of the school system, you have been an educator. You have actually done the reforming of one particular school. Your reaction to seeing all of these experts on what is wrong with our public school system?
MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Well, I always say, you know, most people who talk about schools have never been in one besides the fact that they graduated from an elementary school or high school. The reality is, schools get better when a community supports them. That’s why we agree with community schools. Central improved because we had a community school model called Global Village School Zone that came out of the broad and bold approach from NYU, Dr. Pedro Noguera and the kind of work that they’ve been doing in terms of community schools and stuff that is happen like that around the country; in Cincinnati, places in New York, Patterson, New Jersey, that are using community schools as a model to raise the kind of academic record of these schools by putting the whole community around the schools. And it’s important for us to do that. These other people that are saying all of these things about how to improve schools have no idea what they’re talking about. They don’t know any pedagogy, they don’t know anything in terms of social work, they don’t know how to move kids from one place to the next place. What they’re talking about is business. What they’re talking about is making money. What they’re talking about has nothing to do with educating young people.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, as we move into this next election year, and candidates are running, you ran a real uphill battle. What do you attribute your success to, how you buck the establishment?
MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Well, I think we had a long standing kind of relationship with the community. That’s number one. We’ve been in a community for a very long time, organizing now.
AMY GOODMAN: You were principal of the school for years.
MAYOR RAS BARAKA: I was principal, Vice Principal, a teacher, a community activist, organizer in the city for twenty years.So people knew who I was, they know my family, my father the same way, my mother, my brothers. We have been organizing in the community for a very long time. So that helped. As well as we have a serious ground kind of campaign of folks who are organizing and committed. I mean, we didn’t have a paid army. We had a army of folks that were committed to the ideals of what we were talking about.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey’s largest city. We’ll be back with him in a minute.