CAMDEN N.J. -- This month marks the 60th anniversary of the historic Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
Yet after all these years racial and class inequalities, residential (de facto) segregation, funding and staffing disparities, nationally engineered shift to charter schools and vouchers, and unequal educational horizons still plague a majority of inner-city school districts.
First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking at a high school graduation event in Topeka, Kansas - the original venue of the Brown decision - earlier this month highlighted the still raging harms of race inequality by noting that Brown's judicial advances were being reversed. "Today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech. Many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools, and many communities have become less diverse."
The lingering harms of race inequality in the public schools and a host of other public school education ills that plague all come into a super sharp focus as the national spotlight peeked at the unfolding school crisis in what has been called America's poorest and most dangerous city, Camden, New Jersey. A city where a Rutgers-Camden University graduation commencement speaker correctly noted that " this region will never reach its full potential with America's poorest and saddest city Camden in the middle of it ... the city and its residents don't need charity but an honest discussion about race, class and segregation".
For the past week Camden public school student activists, blacks, Latinos and whites, from elementary grades through high school, along with concerned teachers, parents and community supporters have forced that "honest discussion" about race and class inequalities onto the public stage in a big way.
On May 16th several hundred students erupted spontaneously (prompted via the impetus of social media) and, without permission, left their schools at high noon and marched peacefully to the Camden School District headquarters where they met in protest. Many came from schools two to three miles away.
Their spirited speeches and long list of demands were biting, with student protest leaders launching their most bitter complaints at school superintendent Paymon Rohanifard, an academically unqualified hatchet man for his big boss, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie. The students noted that Rohanifard had been hand- picked by the then state education commission chief Chris Cherf, a longtime stooge of Christie and former president of Edison Schools, Inc., a private school management corporation, to come in and dismantle the traditional public schools in favor of charter schools, many of which are scheduled to become privately run charters. To do his dirty work Rohanifard's main strategy was to claim that the traditional public schools and their teachers and administrative staff were failing, thus setting up a phony need for public school monies to be transferred to the charters.
In addition hundreds of students organized a mass march and rally at Camden City Hall. With the main slogan: "One School, One Voice," students put forth their key demands, including:
- Stop treating us like animals
- Fix our schools and make them modern
- Give back governing authority to an elected school board
- Get rid of Superintendent Rohanifard; he is not certified nor qualified
- Re-direct funds spent by Rohanifard to hire his six-figure cronies as main office upper management personnel to improve our schools
- Rehire public school teachers and staff eliminated to create phony school crisis
- Spend the money on traditional public schools, not charters
- Initiate a moratorium on establishing charter schools
Like the earlier more spontaneous protests, the students, now organized as the Save Our Camden Schools Youth United, along with some brave teacher union members of the Camden Education Association, the Camden Save Our Public Schools Coalition, a retired educator, parent and community based support group, representatives of the NJ NAACP, members of the Philadelphia Area Black Radical Congress and spokespeople for Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network South Jersey affiliate came forward with a whole list of demands aimed this time at Camden Mayor Dana Redd, the Camden City Council and South Jersey Democratic Party political boss and corporate heavyweight George Norcross.
Rally organizers hold Redd accountable, because she has the power to appoint three do-nothing school board members; for standing by approvingly last year while Christie announced the blatantly undemocratic state takeover of Camden public schools, and for basically selling the interests of public school children down the drain.
Redd appointees sat there along with other previously elected board members (save one courageous ex-board president and former teacher, Sarah Davis) while Christie took their legal power away without so much as a whimper. The board is now an advisory committee that merely rubber-stamps whatever the superintendent wants.
It has become apparent to all that Norcross himself is not merely a behind-the-scenes puppet master in the fight to take away traditional public school monies in favor of private charters in Camden. Back in March Norcross and his Republican buddy Christie, in concert with the ever willing Mayor Redd, put on a public display of what the future of the charter school movement in Camden will be if not fought against. At a ceremonial groundbreaking in Camden for a new "renaissance" school that will bear his family's name, Norcross announced a $45 million project to bring the renaissance school - a variation of the traditional charter school, with a different financing model and a requirement for local district approval - to the Lanning Square neighborhood which was once the site of a torn down public school that made way for the just built Rowan-Cooper medical school.
According to published reports in NJ.com, funding for the Norcross "renaissance" school comes chiefly through public sources, authorized by the 2011 Urban Hope Act, which was championed by George Norcross' brother Democratic state Sen. Donald Norcross and signed by Christie. KIPP, the charter school management group brought in to run the Norcross creation now runs a network of private charter schools across the country, including six schools in Newark, the corporate model for what's to be done in Camden. Such sterling promoters of privatizing public education as the right-wing Walton Foundation and the "liberal" Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are moneyed sources behind the KIPP group.
While students must be applauded for their great effort, it is important for readers to be clear that the current student led protests in Camden, though assisted through the "miracle" of social media technology, did not appear uninformed out of the blue.
The local movement in Camden to protest Gov. Christie's takeover of the public schools was formally begun in April 2013 with the first mass community meeting of the Camden Save Our Public Schools Coalition. Originally it was called together by longtime community activist R. Mangoliso Davis, retired teacher Joyce Carter, retired school principal Claudia Cream, community arts promoter Rob Dickinson and his Unity Community Center (the parent organization of the world renowned Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble), political activist Keith Walker, this writer and a few others. The coalition held a half dozen community educational forums, events and rallies that mobilized many to clearly see and do something about the school situation in Camden.
The next stop for the student led protests is Gov. Christie's office in Trenton, the NJ state capitol. There the students and their adult supporters hope to impress upon the scandal-plagued governor that the founding principle of democracy is that the people, not corporate profits or party politics, are sovereign. In education, as in all institutional arrangements, the people united will never be defeated. This is the clarion call for an "honest discussion" on race and class educational issues on the road to Trenton.
Mahdi Ibn-Ziyad, Ph.D. retired Camden High School teacher, is co-founder of Camden Save Our Public Schools Coalition.
Photo: Camden parents, students & teachers saying NO to privatization! Save Our Schools New Jersey Facebook page.