I’m pleased to introduce Keith Benson, a Camden High teacher and Camden resident. You can find him on twitter at @CamdenEANJ. Keith is frustrated that local media (particularly the Inky and Courier-Post) haven’t accepted teachers’ op-eds on Camden’s public education story. I asked him if he would be willing to contribute his take here. A big thank you to Keith for being willing to do so publicly. I’m looking forward to all of your responses and hope that this blog can help foster public dialogue on the intersection between democracy and education. As always, all views welcome:
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire wrote:
“Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects” and later, “One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding.”
Governor Christie and Mayor Dana Redd probably have not read Freire…
Camden 2014: a city ravaged by poverty, unemployment, violence, and now, more problematic, is a municipality where the basic democratic rights of its low-income residents are increasingly being stripped away. 2013 saw Camden’s City Police force dismantled despite city-wide protest and petitions signed by over 9,000 residents seeking to simply have a vote on the matter. Mayor Redd went so far as to sue the residents of Camden to forcibly terminate the Camden Police to form the county-run police force, disregarding resident input or say-so.
Also in 2013, the NJ State Department of Education took over the school system at the request of Mayor Redd; and, further adding insult to democratic injury, Governor Chris Christie and Education Commissioner Chris Cerf also stripped the Board of Education from the right to select the Superintendent after conducting its own national search. Subsequently, the Mayor and only pre-selected, politically connected Camden residents were on hand this past summer at a closed-to-the-public press conference where Christie introduced his selection for the Camden Schools chief; a Teach for America alum with two years classroom teaching experience and a bachelor’s degree in economics.
The blatant democratic encroachments of 2013, endured by Camden’s citizens, are a symptomatic of the Governor’s and Mayor’s modus operandi of the future; that democratic participation by the poor and minority people of Camden is a hindrance, not an asset, and thus should be avoided at all costs.
Unfortunately, in the months ahead, we will witness a further, more troublesome eroding of residents’ rights by the direction the state-run Camden Board of Education is poised to take with little regard for residents’ wishes, or opportunity for meaningful participation. To satisfy the educational agenda of Governor Christie, Commissioner Cerf, Mayor Redd, and George Norcross III, the state-run Camden school system, under the new state-appointed superintendent and mayoral-appointed Board of Education, despite overwhelming research that closing neighborhood schools serves no academic benefit to children, destabilizes communities, and puts children in greater peril by forcing them to traverse farther on city streets, is sure to shutter numerous public schools next year, while opening more politically friendly, corporate-run charter schools – all without the input of those bearing most of the consequences of these decisions – Camden residents.
But this is by no means an isolated phenomenon. In fact, it is by design. Today in urban America, from Los Angeles to Newark, where there are high concentrations of poverty, and a high percentage of Black and Hispanic residents, boards of education members are being appointed by office holders rather than by direction election and superintendents are being implanted by politicos into urban public school districts from pro-privatization, pro-charter programs like the Broad Foundation, The New Teachers Project, New Leaders for New Schools, Teach for America, etc., tasked with closing public schools; all for the purpose of keeping community residents silenced and marginalized from the democratic processes that can shape their city.
Our Governor, and mayor have long communicated the idea that Camden public schools are “failing”. Mayor Redd has gone so far as to call Camden public schools a “prison pipeline”, not coincidently, around the same time South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross III extolled the virtues of Camden’s charter schools (despite lacking evidence Camden charter schools do better educating Camden children). Sadly, the well-funded, anti-urban public school message has gained traction despite the falsity of their claims. To be sure, Camden public schools are far from perfect, but the good in Camden public education far exceeds the negative attention they receive from agenda-laden politicians and power-appeasing “news” outlets like the local Courier-Post and Norcross-owned Philadelphia Inquirer.
While the justifications given by politicians for their democratically abusive behavior is simply a list of easily manipulated statistics like Camden’s NJASK and HSPA scores, and graduation rates, what politicians like Christie and Redd truly want is to break up the local teachers union (like was done to the city police), close city public schools thus pushing parents to enroll their children in corporate-run charter schools (thereby ensuring the charters’ enrollment and sustainability), and silence Camden residents’ from shaping of their own communities and education of their children (the closing and taking-over of Lanning Square Elementary school by the KIPP Charter/Cooper/Norcross school is a prime example).
And, that perhaps is the most insulting and disheartening affront. The actions of Governor Christie, Mayor Redd, and the all-appointed Board of Education, would never and have never be visited on more affluent white suburbanites, but low-income minority residents here are being forced to “take it”, and thus, by design, kept from fundamentally participating in shaping their neighborhoods and the direction of their child’s education.
“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”-P. Friere
With the recent swearing-in of Mayor Redd and her entire democratic city council ticket, there were a slew of pre-selected attendees looking to cozy up to powered establishment that is actively disenfranchising Camden’s low-income Black and Hispanic residents. Norcross brothers George and Donald, Assemblymen Rob Andrews, County Police Chief Scott Thompson, and even Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter among other “dignitaries” were in attendance. The message in Camden going forward is clear: unless residents and educators are politically connected, and willing to do the bidding of both elected and appointed powerbrokers, participation in the future of Camden’s education and direction is not for you. And disappointingly, there seems to be no shortage of people willing to side with those in power to deny Camden residents what is rightfully theirs – their voice.
Keith E. Benson
Teacher, Camden High School
Pre-Doctoral Student, Rutgers University Graduate School of Education
Keith.benson (at) gse.rutgers.edu