Events: Reflections On Last Night's Newark Panel
While we're waiting for the event to be discussed on WNYC's Brian Lehrer later this morning, let me tell you what a strange, interesting time it was to my eyes in Newark yesterday evening at the WNYC-hosted panel to discuss the past and future of the Newark schools.
As has already been reported, the news out of the event was that while there's no clear timeline for returning the district to local control -- and no clear legal mechanism for doing so -- Cerf says that there will be no attempt to increase the percentage of kids being served by charter schools, either.
That's probably reassuring to charter critics and those who are focused on the district schools that still serve two thirds of the Newark kids but tremendously disappointing to charter advocates who point to Newark charters' academic success and long waiting lists of parents. It may also have come as something of a surprise. At least one charter insider in the audience thought that Cerf was going to charterize the district.
Beyond that news, there were all sorts of moments and dynamics that felt "off" to me (though they may not have had the same effect on other audience members).
First and foremost, there was the visual of Newark mayor Ras Baraka sitting next to grey-haired Chris Cerf, the appointed head of Newark schools. How and why Chris Christie chose an awkward preppy white guy to replace Cami Anderson is unclear to me and can't have been welcome news to Baraka and his supporters. Contrast the move with what happened in DC, where Kaya Henderson succeeded Michelle Rhee.
Part of the tension is structural. The two men are both deeply concerned about Newark schools, but neither is wholly in charge of Newark's mixed school system. The state oversees the school district, but the district doesn't really oversee the charter schools -- an ongoing governance problem raised several times in Russakoff's book. And of course, Cerf is pro-charter, an outsider, and all the rest.
Unsettling matters further, Baraka and Cerf couldn't seem to decide last night whether they were going rehash and continue past battles that were the subject of Dale Russakoff's book, The Prize, or focus on trying to create the impression of a unified front looking to the future and working together. They did a bit of both, but seemed like they were veering back towards old beefs as the night went on (and the audience's preference became clear).
Throughout, both men seemed to be resorting to sound bites and talking points rather than candor and honest reflection, though Baraka came off as a much better speaker in this context (and certainly had more of the audience members behind him). His mandate and responsibilities are much more focused. Cerf had the awkward task of defending the past, apologizing for it (including throwing some shade at Booker and Christie), and reassuring the public about future changes. (Cerf: "I suspect there were more than a few cases when now-Sen. Booker and Gov Christie overstated their case.")
By and large, Russakoff was woefully under-used during the 90-minute session, limited to a few initial observations and then left to the sidelines. It would have been especially interesting if Floyd had asked her to confirm or raise questions with the claims that Baraka and Cerf were making (several of which seemed possibly misleading or incomplete to me) or if she had just jumped in and said, "hey, wait a minute -- that's not right." But neither of those things happened.
Wearing a cropped white jacket and fun glasses, Floyd was an enthusiastic and engaged moderator but seemed to struggle to keep panelist's answers short (especially Cerf) and to deal with audience members who wanted to ask more than one questions or refute panelist's answers to their questions. Though she's spent a fair amount of time in Newark on this topic in the past few weeks, she also lacked the background information to question Baraka and Cerf's claims herself. (She also apparently had a panelist bow out at the last minute, and was unable to convince the head of the teacher's union to appear at the event though he did sit down for an interview earlier this year.)
She called Cerf out when he tried to glide past some of the past failures, but that was about it. Baraka admitted "of course there's bloating in the district" but that was about it. His answer to why more resources don't get into schools was incomprehensible (to me, at least). His sound bites were awesome, though. ("We can't fight inequality by creating more inequality," for example.)
So neither the moderate nor the journalist panelist was able or willing to do any live fact-checking against the claims being made onstage.
For me personally, it was fascinating to see some of the folks I'd been reading about and listening to in person up on stage, and to see a slew of familiar folks. My Spencer classmate Nancy Solomon was there -- she's currently heading the New Jersey bureau for WNYC. (I also got to meet Sarah Gonzalez, the NJ-based reporter who sometimes covers education for the station.) Former WSJ education reporter Barbara Martinez was in the audience. Jennifer (Edushyster) Berkshire was somewhere in the audience, too.