Five Maxims for Phil Murphy

At a town hall in Montclair this past weekend, Phil Murphy held forth on the four New Jersey school districts — Jersey City, Paterson, Newark, and Camden — that over the last twenty-four years have been taken over by the state.  “In every  case, 100 percent of cases, state takeovers are of communities of color — that’s a fact, whether it is the school district or the entire community. And,” added Murphy indignantly, “ I find that to be particularly offensive.” According to John Mooney at NJ Spotlight,  our presumptive  governor “was unequivocal that he saw the takeovers as a troubling pattern that has clearly targeted minority communities.”

Wow. That’s quite an accusation and, if true, is indeed troubling. The problem is that it’s not true. And so let’s look at these distortions as a teachable moment.

Mr. Murphy, here are five suggestions regarding your comments in Montclair.  Let’s call them Murphy Maxims, offered respectfully and with genuine intent to help you navigate the troubled waters you’ll inherit in January.

Murphy Maxim #1: Don’t inject racism into non-racist issues.

Mr. Murphy, you say you detect a “troubling pattern” of state takeovers that clearly targets minority communities. You find this pattern offensive, as any good person would. But in this case you’re missing the point. The troubling pattern isn’t the state takeovers. The troubling pattern is that these four districts failed students of color for decades. The offense is that for generations children in these districts have been deprived of their constitutionally-mandated thorough and effective education.

There’s enough racism in America right now. You don’t need to make up examples.

Murphy Maxim #2: Know your history.

Facts are important. Before you make accusations about, say, Newark, read civil rights leader Robert Curvin’s book Inside Newark, who writes that a century of school district corruption and patronage “shortchanges the overwhelming majority of children who enter its classrooms.” (See here and here for more on this.) 

Camden? Thirteen  years ago, Governor Jon Corzine’s Education Commissioner, Lucille Davy, declared, “I can’t get past [Camden’s] third- and fourth-grade reading and math scores, which are horrible.” When the State Department of Education issued its list of N.J.’s lowest-performing schools, the year before Camden’s takeover in 2013, twenty-three of Camden’s twenty-six schools were on the list.. The high school’s four-year graduation rate in 2012 was 49 percent compared to 86 percent statewide. Across the district, fewer than 20 percent  of students could read at grade level and only 30 percent were at grade level in math. Fewer than one percent of high school students scored high enough on the SAT to be considered ready for college.

Camden Mayor Dana Redd applauded the takeover. She said, “”We recognize as leaders that we have an obligation to give children a real chance to succeed.” Mayor Redd, by the way, is African-American.

The first takeover of a school district in N.J. was Jersey City in 1989. See this New York Times article which describes Jersey City’s schools as “crippled by political patronage and nepotism, weak administration and management, fiscal irregularities, indifference to school repair and tolerance of poor educational achievement by its students.”

Paterson? Oh, heck, just google “Paterson Public Schools” + “corruption” (81,100 hits).

Murphy Maxim #3: Avoid false equivalencies.

You suggest, Mr. Murphy, that the state has unfairly targeted these four districts because community members are mostly Black and Brown. You seem to hint at some sort of conspiracy, perhaps because three of the four takeovers happened under Republican governors, the exception being Jim Florio, whose administration took over Paterson.

It’s true that poor communities are disproportionately populated by people of color. But that doesn’t point to educationally-oriented racist conspiracies; it points to N.J.’s utter failure to provide affordable housing in better districts. After all, location, location, location is our primary form of school choice: families of means move to districts where granite countertops come bundled with good schools. If you can’t afford the granite, you’re locked out.

Want to make N.J.’s schools more equitable when you’re governor? Stop the practice of municipalities evading low-income housing through regulatory loopholes. Or invest money in the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program. Break down those walls!

Murphy Maxim #4: Disabuse yourself of the notion that local control is a panacea for school improvement.

Mr. Murphy, in Montclair you stated that “those closer to the ground should get the say-so. That’s where the governance ought to be.” In other words, you believe that if the state hadn’t taken over Camden and appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, children there would be better off then now. (I realize you are referring to adults on the ground, not kids, but schools aren’t intended as employment agencies.)  Yesterday Camden Public Schools, after four years of intense intervention, increases in school choice, and effective leadership, released its most recent PARCC scores. From the district:

Taken together, District and renaissance school students improved from 4.3 percent to 11.4 percent proficient in math since 2014/15, and 6.5 to 15.7 percent proficient in English language arts in the same time.  These schools collectively served approximately 10,000 Camden students last year.

The report also notes that “compared to 2015/16 results, 12 of the 16 District elementary/middle schools made progress in English language arts, and 9 of 16 made progress in math. High school scores fell slightly, except in Camden High School, where student proficiency rose in English language arts, geometry, and Algebra I and II.” Traditional district schools, particularly Forest Hill and Cramer Elementary, more than doubled their proficiency in math.

Is it all about test scores? Of course not. Here’s Superintendent Rouhanifard:

Great schools are so much more than just test results, but being able to read and do math at grade level is critical to giving our students the skills to compete with their peers across the state and country, so we’re proud of the steady progress we’re seeing,” said Superintendent Rouhanifard. “Reading interventionists in elementary schools, one-on-one weekly coaching to help teachers improve classroom instruction, and a 53 percent drop in suspensions last year all contribute to the rise we see in students’ test scores. We’re pausing today to celebrate the progress our kids, our teachers, and our parents have made, but I recognize we still have a long way to go.

And how about them renaissance schools? You know, the ones authorized by the Urban Hope Act that are hybrids of charter and traditionals?

  •         Uncommon Schools Camden Prep— while none of the handful of students had been proficient in English language arts or math when they attended a District school in 2016, 37.5 percent of those same students gained proficiency after one year at Camden Prep.
  •         KIPP—while only 6.6 percent of the students had been proficient in English language arts when they attended a District school in 2016, 23.5 percent of these same students were proficient when they attended KIPP in 2016. In math, the percentage rose from 5.5 to 12.7.

(We’ll talk another time about your wariness towards charters, a form of school choice available to parents who can’t afford granite countertops.)

In Camden, Mr. Murphy, the state takeover has injected hope into a school district long-plagued by abysmal student achievement despite piles of money and a revolving door of school leaders. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Abbott cases, Education Law Center’s litigation 25 years ago against N.J.’s failure to provide educational equity. Do you know why these famous rulings are called “Abbott”? Because the plaintiffs are listed in alphabetical order and the first one on the list was Raymond Abbott of, you guessed it, Camden. It was another two decades before the state intervened.  Raymond Abbott ended up dropping out of high school and going to prison.

Murray Maxim #5: Words matter.

Of course, state takeovers should be a last resort. But sometimes that’s where we find ourselves. You may, in fact, find yourself faced with other districts that require strict oversight beyond that offered by the placement of a state fiscal monitor. Do you abandon yet another generation of children to the vagaries of dysfunctional and corrupt adults? Or do you take action? Do you accept Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s evocation of the “fierce urgency of now” or do you give it another decade?

I’ve heard it said that campaigning is easy but governing is hard. I believe this is true. That’s because, once in that seat, you learn that things that seem simple on the ground are actually far more complex. You’ve got this wrapped up. Don’t make life unnecessarily difficult for yourself. Stay away from false equivalencies, know your history, be wary of conspiracy theorists (especially in the education sector), and watch your words.

What do you think?

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