By Lyndsey Layton
NEWARK — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went on a publicity blitz when he vowed to fix this city’s struggling schools with the most expansive re-engineering of urban education anywhere in the country.
He told Oprah Winfrey in 2010 that Newark would become a “national model.” He said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the plan would be “paradigm shifting.” And he took ownership when community leaders began to complain about some of the plan’s controversial elements — bragging last year about the day he faced down Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who had been elected on the promise to fight Christie’s schools plan.
“I’m the decider,” Christie said he told Baraka. “You have nothing to do with it.’
But five years after Christie launched what could have been a career-defining policy initiative for an aspiring future president, city leaders are in revolt. On Wednesday, a band of city, county and state elected officials, along with leaders from the NAACP and others, will board a train bound for Washington for a meeting with Obama administration officials. Newark parents have filed a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that the plan, called “One Newark,” disproportionately affects African Americans, and the local officials plan to ask the administration to help halt a plan they say has thrown their city into chaos.
The plan, which fully took effect during this academic year, essentially blew up the old system. It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices. It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.
Many families saw their children spread among multiple schools or sent across town. The scattering has been problematic for a city divided along gang lines, where four in 10 residents don’t own cars.
In addition, state test scores have stayed the same or even declined. Amid protests, Christie’s hand-picked Newark superintendent, Cami Anderson, faces calls for her removal — even from some of her onetime allies.