Newark Teachers Battle Governor’s School Privatization Agenda

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie aims privatize Newark's school system by closing public schools and promoting charters—but a growing rank-and-file caucus within the teachers union is organizing members to resist. They're holding weekly pickets, dressed in black, and packing the school closure hearings to protest. Photo: Branden Rippey.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who controls the Newark Public Schools, has a plan.

He wants to expand charter schools, defund traditional public schools, add burdens to teachers’ daily lives, and weaken and slowly destroy teachers unions. Then he’ll open the school system to complete privatization.

So far, Christie’s plan is working. In December his appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson initiated a plan to promote charter schools in the name of “choice,” and another plan to close at least eight schools and sell 15 publicly owned school buildings to charters. She suspended without pay five elementary school principals who spoke out publicly against the closures.

But a growing rank-and-file caucus within the teachers union is organizing members to resist.

A slate organized by the Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus won a majority on the executive board in the union’s 2013 election. The group is mobilizing members to wear black to work and hold weekly pickets on Fridays to show their opposition to the cuts—and to pack school closure hearings, including one today.

A Caucus Grows

Christie took over the district in 2010, after 14 years of unhelpful yet relatively benign state control by previous governors. He pledged to “reform” the Newark Public Schools—a euphemism for a war against public education, and teachers in particular.

He’s pushed through pension and benefit “reform” for district and state employees, massive cuts to state aid for public education and colleges, a two-year-plus pay freeze, a 2012 contract that includes “merit” pay and “renew” schools (where the entire staff is laid off, forced to reapply for their jobs, with only 50 percent rehired), and a new statewide teacher evaluation system that rates teachers by student performance, partly on standardized tests.

In textbook corporate education “reform” style, the governor appointed a hand-picked superintendent, with no community input, who can overrule decisions made by a democratically elected advisory board. It’s the preferred way that conservative, predominately white politicians push privatization schemes in predominately black and Latino cities. For politicians like Christie, democracy is apparently only for white, suburban voters.

Meanwhile, years of weak leadership in the Newark Teachers Union had alienated members and allowed union activity to stagnate. As the Christie machine bore down on Newark’s education workers, NTU leaders remained silent. They took no steps to prepare members for the pain to come or to build their capacity for action.

So a handful of rank-and-filers began a movement to oppose the first round of budget cuts in 2010. We organized member meetings, conducted reading groups on Newark education history and labor history, and began to reach out to the community about how we could build alliances.

By February of 2011, we realized the union’s leaders were not going to change. A hastily organized slate ran in the spring elections, but lost. Founders of that slate organized the caucus in December 2011 to build a movement for change in the NTU.

NEW Caucus’s goal is to rebuild and reorient the union so it can fight both for its members and for public education. Over two years we built a contact list, organized reading groups, and carried out a political education series featuring lectures and discussion.

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We attended every parent meeting we could, to make sure we understood what parents and community members were feeling about their schools. We attended school advisory board meetings, where we protested budget cuts, racial injustice, and unprecedented removals of teachers with seniority from their positions. We joined the People’s Organization for Progress, a grassroots progressive organization, in their campaign for a national jobs program. And we publicly pushed NTU leaders to take the initiative and activate the members.

Last spring, the caucus organized a second electoral slate, including others who simply felt the need for change. We ran a positive campaign, against a well-financed leadership who used negative messaging to scare members. Though we lost the presidential position by nine votes, the slate won 18 of 31 seats on the executive board: a tremendous victory after 18 years of undemocratic, rubber-stamp leadership.

Changing from Within: Harder than It Sounds

Since the election, NEW Caucus has worked on two fronts—through the newly elected slate members, and through continued grassroots efforts.

The executive board members have struggled to change the NTU from within. This means lots of frustration—asking the same questions over and over, pushing leaders to take action, and generally pushing change up a steep hill. Having control of the executive board sounds nice, but the people in the office day to day still wield the power of action, or inaction.

The slate has opened executive board meetings to members. We have forced more financial transparency. We initiated Fight Back Fridays, designed to build solidarity within the union and win community support. Every Friday we ask members to wear black, and to picket outside their school in the morning before punching in and in the afternoon after punching out.

But we have been unable to create a desperately needed internal organizing campaign. We haven’t yet been able to force the president, the secretary-treasurer, and the unelected director of organization to thoroughly support the weekly picket campaign, or to organize more aggressive actions that might unite the community against school closures.

And we’ve been unable to change the leaders’ conservative attitude regarding member grievances. For years, when faced with an unfair or illegal directive from a principal or superior, the president and director of organization have told us to “comply now, grieve later.” This allows a bad precedent to be set. It also allows the administrator to carry out the directive indefinitely, while district lawyers drag out the grievance and arbitration process.

Meanwhile, teachers’ lives get more difficult, and schools get closed without a real fight.

Getting Members into Action

At the grassroots level, the NEW Caucus is still building its capacity to organize and activate rank-and-file members. Unless members get involved in the union and its fight against school privatization, the future is bleak.

From small actions like Fight Back Fridays, the caucus plans to build to more aggressive actions at upcoming public meetings, and then to paradigm-shifting actions in mid-spring to directly challenge the school closure plan.

Branden Rippey is a 16th year history teacher at Science Park High School in Newark, and vice-chair of NEW Caucus. To read about how the CORE caucus won election in the Chicago Teachers Union, partly through its work fighting school closings, order Labor Notes’ new book, How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers.