American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy and lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Sheila Oliver met with educators from four communities Monday to discuss solutions for improving New Jersey's public schools.
The educator roundtable, held at Newark's AFT--Newark Teachers Union headquarters, offered teachers representing public schools in Newark, Perth Amboy, North Bergen, and Garfield a chance to share ideas for improving education and to voice their concerns regarding the current state of public education.
The NTU represents teachers, aides and clerks in the state’s largest school district. AFT New Jersey represents approximately 30,000 education workers from pre-kindergarten through higher education. Teachers at the roundtable were from four districts represented by the AFT in New Jersey.
Weingarten noted the challenges that public education has faced under the Christie administration, as well as from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The forum is part of Weingarten’s national back-to-school tour, focused on the AFT’s fight for well-resourced public schools.
The AFT, the nation's second-largest teachers organization, endorsed Murphy in May.
Weingarten emphasized the importance of creating community schools in Newark’s South Ward, stating that it was essential to fighting poverty in the area.
Murphy reiterated the point.
“As it goes, so does the state,” he said of the South Ward.
The South Ward is plagued by a high rate of poverty, unemployment and low wages. Approximately 30 percent of residents are unemployed—three times the rate in the state—and 45 percent of residents earn $20,000 a year or less, according to the American Community Survey (ACS).
Weingarten expressed concern over attacks on public education by state and national leaders.
“In 2017, it’s a lot more complicated to educate kids in classrooms,” Weingarten said. “We need someone who’s going to walk the walk. Christie talked the talk. When you say you’re going to punch teachers out, what kids of signal does that send?”
Weingarten pointed to Murphy.
“This guy walks the walk,” she said. “You have a current governor who talks trash talk about teachers, versus a guy who has walked the walk for workers.”
Murphy said that bad policies and underfunding of public schools must end.
“Enough of the vilification and bad policies,” Murphy said, noting the inefficacy of Christie’s current funding formula. “Schools have been underfunded in the Christie administration. Let’s get back to funding education and respecting educators.”
In May, after a year of negotiations, a 2012 contract between Newark Public Schools and the NTU was renewed for the union's 3,700 teachers and other members, which includes raises averaging about 2.4 percent a year.
The contract, which offers significant performance-based bonuses for teachers, was mostly funded by private contributors, including a $100 million offering from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
According to Oliver, the state has done an “abominable job” in underfunding schools.
“We have been under assault,” Oliver said, recalling battles with former state superintendent of Newark schools, Cami Anderson, noting Anderson’s “blatant disrespect” for Newark’s educators.
Anderson, who was appointed by Christie in 2011, had a contentious term and resigned in June 2015—eight months before her contract was to expire.
Anderson, who openly clashed with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, alienated many parents after implementing One Newark, a reorganization plan that replaced the city’s tradition of neighborhood schools with a universal enrollment system that assigned students by lottery to both traditional and charter schools.
Months before her resignation, Baraka demanded that Anderson step down, calling her out for "blatant disregard" of the Newark community.
The AFT noted the opportunities to improve the district after Anderson's resignation, releasing a statement at the time criticizing the former superintendent for neglecting the district and ignoring the school board, teachers, parents and students.
Oliver reaffirmed her support for public schools.
“The expansion and growth of charter schools has hurt our public schools,” she said. “We will make sure that our public schools will be front and center on our agenda.”
Oliver said that although she embraces all kinds of schools, funds should not be diverted away from public education.
“We can’t take funds out of district budgets to support them," she said.
Public schools are funded by a combination of local taxes and, in some districts, state aid, with aid allocations determined by the 2008 School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).
Charter schools, which are also public schools, receive 90 percent of what traditional public schools receive and, like district public schools, receive state aid for special education.
Murphy addressed what he believes is a new culture of over-testing.
“We’ve gone from educating kids to testing kids,” he said. “We’re not teach-to-test believers; we want our kids to learn.”
Oliver said Newark is more than ready for local control.
“The state takeover in Newark has been a total disaster,” she said. “The city has been held hostage and has been under siege by the state. We are so poised to return local control to Newark. You will see a policy revamp for the better.”
However, under state control, NPS students in recent years have continued to show steady increases in academic performance.
In 2016, the New Jersey Department of Education released graduation totals by school district, which showed Newark Public School District’s four-year high school graduation rates at about 73.47 percent, up from 69.59 percent the previous year. Newark's graduation rates have gone up each year since 2013.
In addition, NPS students have shown gains in both English/Language Arts and math since 2014, besting statewide gains in both areas.