It was five hours into a Camden Board of Ed meeting filled with protest and high emotions when Keith Benson Sr. asked Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard who, exactly, he represented. Paymon’s response was telling: “I’m here representing the people of Camden.” Sadly, that statement is false. In reality, Paymon is the figurehead of the least democratic school district in New Jersey, the only district to have both an unelected Board of Education and to be under state control. But Paymon’s answer reveals a second problem; the ease with which education reform advocates convince themselves that people (or evidence) are on their side.
It is easy to prove Paymon is not representative. Not a single vote was cast in his name. The School Board is a trickier case, but only slightly so. Mayor Redd was elected and she appoints the BOE, but by excising all ideological opposition, she has made it clear that these are positions of fealty.
The more problematic claim of Paymon’s is that, in private, he has a strong base of support from parents and families. Paymon even insinuated that parents were scared to come to Board Meetings.
This is a troubling assertion for several reasons. The first is that it diminishes those who have shown up. At this meeting, that includes literally hundreds who came and protested, and 28 of 30 speakers speaking in opposition to his plans. I’ve attending numerous meetings in the past and haven’t seen an equivalent movement on the other side.
Simply put, this is why democracy matters. There is no public evidence of a strong coalition of supporters of “no excuses” charter expansion in Camden, only evidence of the contrary. When Paymon speaks of his meetings with parents, he speaks of their desire for change, but never of a specific desire for the changes he has proposed. He then pairs this with statements like, “our students and families deserve excellent schools, and they deserve them as soon as possible. We are not sure why a small group of critics is against this progress.”
When an ed reformer calls his critics a “small group” our ears should perk up. Has Paymon provided evidence that his supporters are a large group? Because they haven’t voted and they haven’t come to public meetings. Equally as importantly, those small groups of critics in other cities are winning elections. See Washington DC, or New York City. Or check back with Newark in a few months.
This was all predictable. It is why I called on the district to provide clear benchmarks for community to oppose a school closing. If the opposition has a clear standard to meet, that holds the District accountable to the public. Anything less than that creates this situation, where Paymon can claim his critics are a “small group” and his supporters are a silent majority, without providing any evidence other than vagaries from his private meetings.
That’s Machiavellian, and it’s also delusion. Evidence in recent cities and evidence in Camden show serious backlash from communities that are the target of ed reform policies. But for the “true believers” of these policies, who find themselves unfettered by democratic processes, it is easy to delude oneself into believing that you are helping.
What is more fun? To imagine yourself “saving” a city? Or as the face of modern colonialism?
But lets do a second thought experiment. What of Paymon’s plan is unexpected given his ideology? Where is any evidence that parental input has affected his strategy of shifting resources and jobs to charter schools? It stretches the imagination that there happens to be a silent majority, behind the scenes, arguing for exactly the reforms Gov. Christie and Paymon support ideologically. That is difficult to believe in part because, if it was the case, why would there have to be a state takeover to enact them?
This delusion isn’t limited to an interpretation of public opinion. The District specifically recruited Uncommon Schools despite evidence that much of its test score gains come from exclusion, and much of its graduation rates are chicanery. That’s why it’s a shame the voice of a long-time education advocate like Sara Davis is pushed away because she is not “a yes woman.” Eliminating and discrediting opposing voices leaves a delusional district steeped in ideology and incapable of hearing the people.
And so we are back where we started. In his closing statements, Camden’s Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard stated emphatically, “I represent all the families of Camden.” The saddest part is that he believes it.