Books & the Arts / November 15, 2023

The Bipartisan Attack on Public Schools

In New Jersey, liberal and conservative forces poured resources into the charter school movement. This effort helps explain the woes of the public school system in the country.

Sam Russek
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker at an educational summit at Rockefeller Plaza, 2010. (Photo by Charles Sykes / NBCU Photo Bank / NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

In 2000, the future Democratic senator Cory Booker spoke at a luncheon hosted by the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank. His speech was devoted to one topic: the virtues of school choice. Booker—who was then but a lowly Stanford-, Yale-, and Oxford-educated Newark City Council member—maligned the old “entitlement paradigm” that he believed was endemic to his city’s public school system. Booker proposed “redefining” pedagogy to mean “the use of public dollars to educate our children at the schools that are best equipped to do so” and advocated for, in essence, siphoning money away from the public school system and feeding it into more charter schools. The opposition to this movement would be fierce, he conceded, especially from the “educational bureaucracies” that benefited from the status quo, in particular teachers’ unions. But, peppering his speech with references to his political heroes—Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King Jr.—Booker contended that the charter movement would overcome its foes. He concluded with the words of James Baldwin: “One is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”

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Much has changed in the past two decades. Although Booker once received funding from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which has donated millions to the school choice cause, he was, by 2019, publicly opposing Betsy DeVos’s successful bid to become Donald Trump’s secretary of education. More recently, the Manhattan Institute, which earlier called Booker’s rise “one of the most compelling American political stories of recent memory,” has since veered away from elevating Democrats of any sort and opted for a “marriage of convenience” with the Christian right, according to the historian Jack Schneider, helping foment a moral panic over “CRT” and trans children to drive a conservative referendum on public education. Meanwhile, Democrats have painted themselves as defenders of the public school system, likening their role today to those who fought to desegregate schools in the civil rights era, and their opponents to segregationists who relied on school vouchers to preserve their racist regime.

There’s some truth to this current framing, and yet it also elides decades of intervening history. While school choice has become among the most fiercely partisan issues in contemporary politics, not long ago the charter movement was a bipartisan project. Besides Booker, President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, announced a competitive grant program in 2009 that coerced states into embracing charters (Duncan called the push for school privatization a “new civil rights movement”), and, at Obama’s behest, the Rev. Al Sharpton went on tour with Newt Gingrich to promote “school innovation.” Even earlier, in 1987, New Jersey became the first among dozens of states to pass a “takeover” law, which allowed the state government to snatch control of school districts that failed to “demonstrate improvement.” Two years later, then–Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton collaborated with his future opponent in the 1992 presidential race, George H.W. Bush, to outline “rewards and sanctions” that would compel public schools to meet state standards (which they also determined), opening the way to defund and replace—rather than preserve and reform—public schools.

How could these former bedfellows so quickly become sworn enemies? To organizer and CUNY sociology professor John Arena, we must foreground the greater economic scheme behind divesting from public goods when looking at the history of the school choice movement. It’s not only a racialized issue based on determining who receives what kind of education; it’s also one that has massively benefited for-profit players and real estate interests looking to “revitalize” low-income areas. Studies have shown that school choice can actually accelerate gentrification, causing a spike in home values and exacerbating racial disparities. As Arena argues, it’s no wonder that privatized education found a solid footing as the Reagan administration dismantled the New Deal welfare state, and as the federal government looked to disempower unions and reduce social service spending. Today, as the world economy appears fragile and many US cities exhaust their cut of the Covid-19 stimulus funds, it should come as no surprise that the crusade to privatize has taken on a renewed vitality.

Drawing on the scholarship of Adolph Reed Jr., Arena contends that the racial rhetoric invoked in debates over school choice obfuscates “real class divisions, interests, and ideological diversity,” which has proved an indispensable tool to both “white and black political elites” who may oppose each other’s reasons for privatizing, but not the results. In his new book, Expelling Public Schools: How Antiracist Politics Enable School Privatization in Newark, Arena studies how a multiracial elite justified its privatizing schemes under the feel-good guise of racial equity—meaningfully eliding class equity—and how opposing forces were neutralized as a result.

Central to that story is Booker, who as mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013 fostered charters in the inner city but faced an unprecedented pushback from his constituents, and his successor, Ras Baraka (son of Amiri Baraka, one of the most influential Black Power revolutionaries of the post-civil-rights era), who as a progressive, self-proclaimed “radical mayor” ran against Booker’s legacy and only made things worse. Even as Newark passed into the hands of a vocal critic of, in Baraka’s words, Republican Governor Chris Christie’s “neocolonial” regime, all that rhetorical resistance proved to be just that—rhetorical.

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The American commentariat tends to smear Newark as a city of “urban crisis”: a place of crime, poverty, derelict public housing, and racial strife. It began, as with so many of the country’s downwardly mobile urban centers, with the post–World War II suburbanization boom, which prompted decades of white flight. Between 1950 and 1960, 115,000 whites left the city, including half of Newark’s teachers and administrators, only further stoking racial resentments. (Indeed, Amiri Baraka would coordinate a movement to counter-picket a 1971 teachers’ strike, charging that the teachers didn’t have the local students’ interests in mind.) By 1970, the overall city population had dropped by 14 percent. Only Washington, D.C., and Gary, Ind., witnessed as rapid a transition as Newark to a city with a non-white majority.

White flight coincided with a push for private enterprise in cities all across America: Public utilities like housing, healthcare, water, and, yes, schools, became emerging markets for entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the disinvestment of the country’s urban centers, solving a problem that had “bedeviled the ruling class” throughout the Great Depression, Arena writes. But what was good for capitalists was not necessarily good for cities. The loss of businesses and residences in Newark reduced its tax base and slashed home values, which forced city leaders to manage a “long-standing and deepening fiscal crisis” for years to come.

The political machine that emerged to meet this moment was aligned with the city’s shifting demographic makeup: In the post-civil-rights era, Newark was central among the cities that had come to be dominated by what is now known as the “Black Urban Regime” (shortened to BUR), a term Arena borrows from Adolph Reed Jr. that names a new political class made up of Black professionals drawn from a growing “managerial” workforce often employed by nonprofit foundations or government-funded Great Society programs. In 1970, Kenneth Gibson, who was previously a city engineer and vice president of an antipoverty program, became Newark’s first Black mayor—the first Black mayor of any major Northeastern city. The campaign took place in the aftermath of the 1967 Newark riots, which began after two white police officers beat and arrested a Black cab driver. Gibson ran a campaign that promised to reform the corrupt local government and make businesses pay their fair share, a policy he quickly abandoned. His white incumbent opponent, in turn, called him a “puppet” for the Black radical movement. In the end, Gibson’s mayorship did little to fix many of the racist inequities that had inspired the riots in the first place.

Once in office, Gibson obtained state funds to hire more police officers and other public employees, a strategy meant to sanitize the city for business investment. At the same time, he took an oppositional stance to the teachers’ union, seeing it as an opponent of his attempts to balance the city budget. In later years, he touted the improved health services under his watch, but among his regrets, he told The New York Times, was his inability to “attract major job-producing industries to the city.” The members of this new Black political class often seemed progressive in public and even allied themselves with populist causes from time to time, but the policies they supported were no less friendly to business interests than their predecessors, caught as they were between a Black working-class voter base and wealthy capitalist benefactors to legitimize their rule.

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By the time Booker became mayor in 2006, Newark had known 36 years of uninterrupted BUR control. Discrimination had by no means disappeared, and yet the city’s multiracial political class promoted a number of market-friendly policies that did little to solve inequality and, in fact, accelerated it. For instance, James Sharpe, who defeated Gibson in 1986 and held the mayorship for two decades, continued to enable “revitalization” in the city, which saw the demolishing of public housing and low-income neighborhoods in favor of private real estate schemes. Sharpe also enthusiastically backed Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which expanded prisons and padded police departments’ pockets, feeding the widening maw of mass incarceration.

Booker came to Newark’s inner city in 1998 “under the aegis of philanthropy,” Arena writes—he once staged a 10-day hunger strike to draw attention to the drug dealing and violence in Newark—and won a city council seat that same year. Booker’s “primary public policy issue” was public school reform. He contended that the old educational bureaucracy was too slow to respond to the rapidly changing needs of students at the dawn of the new century, and he proposed “choice” through school vouchers and charters for low-income students. His campaign quickly gained a powerful audience.

With support from a number of hedge funds and school-choice foundations, Booker and his local allies became the vanguard of the charter putsch. Mayor Sharpe had delivered on many core components of the privatization agenda, but as Arena writes, the strengthening school-choice movement saw him as an “obstacle” due to his willingness to ally himself with, and make accommodations to, the teachers’ union. While the BUR had been quick to ally with police and destroy public housing, it often still relied on support from different working-class constituencies, including public employees, to vindicate its positions as progressive. “The old post-civil rights black political class had served capital well in demobilizing the struggles of the 1960s and managing downtown regeneration strategies,” Arena writes, but by the end of the 21st century, “some of the very mechanisms these officials had deployed” to manage increasing inequality were becoming untenable.

Booker was innovative: He drew inspiration from “antiracist” rhetoric and a sanitized version of the civil rights movement, one that excused a post-political, post-racial “common sense”—similar to the playbook that, for decades, had allowed mayors across the country to demolish public housing, denigrating these underfunded institutions as an obstacle to progress rather than a meaningful, if flawed, public good. As Booker himself contended, his philanthropy and hedge fund backers found his message so alluring because he was “an African American urban Democrat telling the truth about education.”

In 2010, Booker collaborated with Republican Governor Christie to handpick Newark’s new school superintendent, Cami Anderson, who imposed a shock-therapy privatization plan called One Newark, in which K-12 parents would choose schools from a “menu of options” that included charters. Parents would no longer have a right to send their children to their neighborhood school, “destroying one of the chief, and often only, anchoring institutions serving distressed neighborhoods,” Arena writes. The facilities that saw a decline in enrollment or were designated as “failing” (i.e., the poorest) would be either closed or “restructured” under various schemes. Together, Booker and Anderson planned to maneuver the majority-nonwhite school system beyond what President George W. Bush had famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” In an attempt to whitewash this policy, Booker worked with a former Black nationalist turned charter advocate, Howard Fuller, who was a seasoned organizer and orator, to sell the change to the community. He also courted the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton family, and the now-defunct Steven P. Jobs Foundation, and he even appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show to receive a $100 million grant in person from Mark Zuckerberg.

His administration’s plan was met by an equally vociferous counteroffensive: The move to dismantle Newark’s public schools united teachers, parents, and students in opposition to Booker. Inspired by the recent Occupy movement, they walked out of classrooms, seized administrative buildings, and developed disruptive strategies that tied the Booker administration’s hands. They did so largely of their own accord; the teachers’ union leadership was slow to respond—and sometimes openly hostile—to the rank-and-file anti-charter position, and some principals threatened students with punishment if they participated in walkouts or other disruptions during school hours.

Yet the protests only escalated. The Star-Ledger, Newark’s local paper, pleaded for the local Black clerical wing to “step up and be counted” against the grassroots movement, which had taken to demonstrating outside Cami Anderson’s house and eventually drove her to the suburbs. Booker absconded to the Senate in 2013, before the end of his second term as mayor. Stepping into the power vacuum was Ras Baraka, a former principal whose “activist pedigree” vis-à-vis his father made him a natural antithesis to Booker. He ran a populist 2014 mayoral campaign with the slogan “When I become mayor, we all become mayor” and emphasized the necessity of “local control.”

Critically, Baraka didn’t denounce Booker’s actual education reforms, but rather the lack of democratic input with which they were instated. Students and teachers had demanded not only the removal of Superintendent Anderson but her “entire neoliberal agenda,” Arena writes. They would soon discover that Baraka shared only half of their aspirations.

When Baraka won in 2014, The New York Times called it a “rebuke” of the charter movement. Counterpunch noted, “It is exciting, and rare, to see politicians who really represent people triumph over corporate sponsored sycophants.” The Nation reported that Baraka’s win “might represent a key tipping point” for New Jersey progressives, comparing him positively to the recently elected New York City mayor, Bill DeBlasio.

They celebrated too soon. Although Anderson was ousted under Baraka, her reforms, including One Newark, remained, and Baraka put his thumb on the scale to approve more charter construction. Today, around one-third of Newark’s students attend charter schools; that number was below 7 percent in 2006. Meanwhile, privatization cannibalized millions of dollars from the public schools’ budget. The coalition that had formed to rebuke Booker began to sour on the new “radical mayor,” but by then its members had begun to dissipate, either demoralized by his lack of action or satiated by his rhetorical opposition to Christie’s government—a stark contrast from Booker’s “common sense.” Arena points out that Christie’s “thinly veiled racist attacks” on Newark’s public schools helped displace white suburban resentments toward shared services, which, in turn, “strengthened the power of Baraka’s own [campaign] to steer the movement toward a manageable” level of resistance. So long as he publicly opposed Christie, enough Newarkers believed that Baraka was doing right by them, keeping dissent at a minimum.

Baraka remains Newark’s mayor, and his decade-long reign only intensified the city’s reliance on charter schools. In 2018, as the political winds changed, he called for a halt on charter expansion because of how “aggressively” the industry had grown, yet not much has tangibly changed in the system itself. In addition to increased charter activity, Baraka oversaw the destruction of more public housing, which—along with school charterization—increased property values in the city, pricing longtime residents out, despite half-measures to tamp the trend. If Baraka’s electoral victory was meant to represent a strike against the agenda that preceded him, he has failed. But the movement to block the school district coup failed, too.

Why? Arena notes midway through the book that while organizers could agree on a “jobs for all” program—dusting off a New Deal artifact—they were unable to agree on how to swerve from a force against privatization and toward an alternative. Baraka was not only in the right place at the right time; he also received the backing of the local labor bureaucracy and social justice nonprofits, which were quick to suggest a candidate upon whom demonstrators could park their ambitions. The movement wasn’t savvy enough to recognize how the interests of the multiracial professional class were “cloaked by what is projected as the ‘race interests’ of all African Americans,” Arena writes. Essentially, the movement was duped—but are things really that simple?

Arena’s book leaps from early February 2018, the day Baraka filed for reelection, to conclude in the summer of 2020, recounting how local activists welcomed Baraka to lead the city’s largest march against police violence after George Floyd’s murder. Despite Baraka’s privatizing streak, which intensified rents and “necessitates aggressive policing” of the city’s marginal population—the working class and the unhoused—he was still seen by some as the city’s rightful leader. (He’s also been quick to defend his city’s police force, even arguing against federal oversight due to past civil rights violations.) After the protest, to quell calls for racial justice, Baraka started a fund for Black- and Latinx-owned businesses. Arena points out that this, too, will likely result in driving wealth to Newark’s racially diverse petty bourgeoisie—not to the heavily policed working class. Still, the march went off without a hitch, with no arrests and only minimal property damage. The New York Times called it “a victory” due to “a combination of tactical decisions, community and political leadership and the still-raw memory of 1967,” referring to the riots of yesteryear. “Courageous, defiant Baraka,” Arena previously observed, “was beyond reproach.”

“Let it be said clearly,” writes the social theorist Shemon Salam, “the George Floyd Rebellion is the new criterion to which all theories and politics must be held to account.” In the same way others have attributed the right’s focus on “CRT”—or the recently published No Politics but Class Politics, a collection of essays by Adolph Reed Jr. and Walter Benn Michaels—to the notorious events of that summer, Arena is, in his own way, coming to grips with the fallout. He contends that Baraka’s anti-racist agenda was in fact “wholly in line” with the Black Lives Matter movement’s politics. This, again, feels somewhat shallow given all the reasons people were drawn to protest, not to mention the intersecting ways—spatial, legal, and otherwise—that race and class are experienced. Race has, after all, developed within American capitalism; it’s the “language through which” its ugly contradictions are often expressed, to paraphrase Reed. They are inseparable. To imply that the goals of the nonprofit arm “leading” the BLM movement from afar were shared by the entire crowd may, if we follow the logic, insinuate that Baraka was the Newark anti-charter movement—assuming the outcome supersedes each faction’s competing efforts. The 2020 demonstrations were also often spontaneous and swiftly flared out, whereas the anti-charter movement was protracted and organized.

Still, if the two have anything in common, it’s in how swiftly the horizons for their respective causes seemed to be curtailed by organized, well-funded politicos, bolstered by nonprofits, who did so under the guise of racial equity. With an eye toward the not-so-distant past—and the near future—Arena’s book asks why social movements collapse, and how liberal conceptions of racial politics, employed by a multiracial elite, have so often thwarted radical calls for change. Arena does an excellent job showing how the professional class’s tactics kneecap the ability of nascent movements to define themselves and their goals. Although Expelling Public Schools doesn’t answer every question we might have about how this could be prevented, it’s a good place to start.

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Sam Russek

Sam Russek is a writer from Houston, Tex., currently living in New York. His writing has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, Dissent, and other places. Find him on Twitter @samrussek.

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