The mythology about urban charter schools -- that the vast majority of city parents would do anything to pull their kid out of public schools and enroll them in a charter -- is the central conceit of the controversial documentary "Waiting For Superman." In recent days, though, parents are showing the "Superman" mythology is just that, a myth. Here in Philadelphia, parents at the Edward T. Steel Elementary School in Nicetown voted overwhelmingly against the idea of turning over management to a charter operator.
OK, so that's just one school. But this week, voters in the city of Newark -- in a special election to replace ex-Mayor Cory Booker after his election to the U.S. Senate -- had a clear choice. One candidate, Shavar Jeffries, pledged to carry on Booker's pro-charter policies and benefited from a ton of money, much of it from New Jersey's powerful Democratic machines. His rival was Ras Baraka (pictured at top) -- the son of controversial (to say the least) poet and 1960s-era radical Amiri Baraka and a Newark school principal who supports traditional public schools and had support from the teachers union.
In the end, Jeffries had the money and the establishment, but Baraka had the votes, and on Tuesday he won, handily.
It felt as if a huge corner has been turned on the education debate:
As Newark woke up to a new mayor-elect on Wednesday, the groups that backed him declared his victory one for the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party, saying it was part of a rising tide across the country of voters’ speaking out against charter schools and other incursions against labor unions and public education.
The election of the new mayor, Ras Baraka, was seen by many as a rebuke of Cory A. Booker, now a senator.
Groups supporting Mr. Baraka ran ads casting Mr. Jeffries, also a Democrat, as the puppet of the governor and Wall Street groups that support charter schools and had donated lavishly to him and outside groups backing him.
One television spot featured a clip of Mr. Christie declaring: “I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.”
“For the past 20 or 30 years, you’ve had a rightward drift among the Democratic Party, and what we’re seeing now in election after election is that Democratic electorates are desiring a full-throated conversation about wealth inequality and robust public services,” said Seth Hahn, the legislative and political director for the Communications Workers of America in New Jersey, which has 70,000 members in the state and was at the center of a coalition of public employee unions working to elect Mr. Baraka. Mr. Hahn cited as examples the victories of Senator Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York.
Look, voters have now seen nearly a generation of the charter school movement, and they're smart enough to know that while some charters do a good job, others are lousy or even criminal in some cases, and overall they do no better than public schools. They want their neighborhood schools improved, not replaced, and they like their kids' teachers for the most part. Plus, they're starting to realize who's making out the most from the charter movement, and that it's not the kids.
This week The New Yorker ran a very long but very fascinating look at the Newark school situation -- nobody (including, to be honest, Baraka) comes out looking really good, and that also includes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who you may recall pledged $100 million to improve schools in New Jersey's biggest city. Where'd the money go?
During the next two years, .more than twenty million dollars of Zuckerberg’s gift and matching donations went to consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, teacher evaluation Many of the consultants had worked for Joel Klein, Teach for America, and other programs in the tight-knit reform movement, and a number of them had contracts with several school systems financed by Race to the Top grants and venture philanthropy. The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day. Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, observed, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”
Urban parents get a bad rap -- but they know an American hustle when they see one. In the last couple of weeks, they picked up their kryptonite and sent a powerful message to "Superman": Please fly away.