Montclair Cares About Schools, an advocacy group supporting improved public education in the township school district, held a forum yesterday, October 6 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair to discuss where the schools are headed.
The forum, moderated by critical psychology professor and Montclair resident Michelle Fine, found great displeasure with the rush to rigorously test students and questioned the motives of Schools Superintendent Penny McCormack, who she said implemented the tests with the approval of the school board over the objections of residents. Fine and the panelists suspected that Dr. MacCormack’s tenure at the Broad Superintendents Academy, an institution financed by investor Eli Broad—famous for his embrace of corporate management styles to public education—suggested an attempt at “reforming” Montclair schools to a business model.
“Education is not big business!” Fine declared.
Educator and Montclair resident Stan Karp said that rigorous testing was meant to meet impossible federal education standards set by No Child Left Behind, with unfunded mandates and decreasing state aid driving up local taxes stating, “The Common Core testing is not going to be helpful to our schools, our kids or our teachers.” With state support for education drastically cut from 20 percent in the early 1980s to 8 percent today, Karp noted, the pressure to push charter schools and vouchers to undermine public education is increasing.
Debra Jennings, executive co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, said that Eli Broad’s namesake foundation has been brought in to “consult” with local school districts and offered “community management” services that sound good on the surface but are really efforts to force a business model on the school system by taking away the power of teachers and their unions and placing more power under superintendents, who are normally not accredited properly to the needs of the districts. Jennings cited the development of “chief officers,” with their enhanced powers and responsibilities, as examples of the corporate mentality. Sharon Krengel, coordinator of Our Children/Our Schools, an education advocacy network, cited examples of how school districts such as Bayonne refused to accept extra responsibilities and assessment costs without the money to fund them. Krengel said that such advocacy has stopped – so far – efforts to forces vouchers on New Jersey public education.
Much of the blame for the hostile attitude toward education was laid at the feet of Governor Chris Christie, who has slashed education funding and dismissed pre-school education as “babysitting.”
Local residents and officials expressed frustration with how teachers have been denigrated and disregarded, and both Karp and Township Deputy Mayor Robert Russo agreed that teachers should be included in the process of reform to establish good faith between educators and administrators. Montclair resident and best-selling author Jonathan Alter said that the rhetoric must be toned down to restore civility, and cited school board member Leslie Larson’s association with Uncommon Schools, a board her husband has sat on, as an example. Because neither was being paid for their service, Alter said, there was no conflict of interest, contrary to popular wisdom.
Alter also said that the Common Core State Standards by themselves were not threatening and shouldn’t be feared, noting that it puts all students in America on a national standard.
Montclair Education Association (MEA) president Gayl Shepard said she hoped to keep the conversation going. The MEA will participate in a town hall meeting at 5 pm at the Montclair Art Museum on October 30.