Last May I wrote about the mayoral election in Newark, New Jersey
, because it was, among other things, a referendum on the "education reform"/privatization movement. The former mayor, now Senator Cory Booker, is pretty much in the ed reform camp. So was one of the two candidates, Shavar Jeffries. On the other side was a somewhat radical Ras Baraka, a public high school principal who grew up in the city and is a firm believer in retaining, restoring and improving public education.
Newark has one of the most interesting education stories in the country. A weird triumvirate came together to "reform" the Newark schools: Republican Governor Chris Christie, who basically ran the school district because it was under state control; Democratic Mayor Cory Booker who worked together with Christie at the same time he hoped the schools would eventually be returned to local control; and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who contributed $100 million to Newark schools. The result was underwhelming, to say the least. Most of Zuckerberg's money was wasted and very little was accomplished. The details are interesting enough, they're the subject of a new book, “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools,” by Dale Russakoff (If you want a shorter, online version, Russakoff had an excellent article on the subject in the New Yorker
So how are things going now that Baraka has been in office for a year? According to the New York Times, they're going surprisingly well.
Mayor Ras J. Baraka came into office last summer practically taunting his doubters.
“Yeah,” he said in his inaugural address, “we need a mayor that’s radical.”
They had predicted that he would be anti-business and anti-police, that Mr. Baraka, the son of Newark’s most famous black radical, would return a city dogged by a history of riots and white flight to division and disarray.
A year later, Mr. Baraka is showering attention on black and Latino neighborhoods, as he promised he would. But he is also winning praise from largely white leaders of the city’s businesses and institutions downtown. He struggles with crime — all mayors here do — but he has also championed both the Black Lives Matter movement and the police, winning praise for trying to ease their shared suspicion.
Supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and the police isn't incompatible, he's shown. As many people in black communities have said, they want a visible and effective police presence, but they want it there for help and support, not to intimidate and incarcerate.
Here's what a recent Occupy march looked like in Newark.
[It was] an Occupy the City rally the mayor held in early August, blocking off streets at the city’s crossroads for thousands of residents who marched against violence. “We’re used to them blocking off streets because someone got shot, not someone blocking off streets for a positive thing,” Ms. Awadalla said.
Baraka is encouraging city residents to join him "occupying" a block a week to lessen criminal activity. Instead of jumping into the controversy about who's most to blame for problems in the inner city, society at large or the people living there, he wants everyone to work toward solutions.
“Everybody has a responsibility,” he shouted to the thousands gathered at the intersection of Market and Broad Streets for Occupy the City, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “We Are Newark.”
“The mayor has a responsibility, yes,” he said. “The police have a responsibility, yes. But so do our fathers, so do our mothers, so do our brothers. The question is, are you living up to your responsibility?”
What about education? Christie said in June that he would return the Newark schools to local control. It's going to be a tough transition. It'll be awhile to see how well it works.
Newark is a city with lots of problems, and that will continue to be true into the indeterminate future. Baraka will be walking a political and economic tightrope as he tries to effect positive change. But he's giving the city reason to hope there can be a slow movement toward a safer Newark which respects the rights of all its citizens, and a growing economy which will bring more jobs as well as more money in the city coffers to keep the improvement going. The schools will be a slow pull—educational improvement always is—but Baraka was considered a successful high school principal who lowered gang activity and raised test scores, so unlike most politicians, he has an insider's understanding of how schools work and how they can be improved.