Yesterday Ras Baraka won a resounding victory in Newark. The election clearly hinged on education, and was a direct repudiation of the state takeover of the district. Unfortunately, while a mayor’s race appears to be a turning point in education policy in both New York and Newark, Camden’s complicated electoral history means Mayor Baraka’s win doesn’t provide a roadmap for those supporting traditional public schools in Camden City.
Mayor Baraka’s win is the latest in a string of democratic victories for traditional education supporters. A similar victory, with similar relevance to Camden, occurred in Philly last week, when parents overwhelmingly voted down an attempt to turn Steel into a Mastery Charter school, causing Mastery to abandon the effort.
These two democratic victories have direct parallels for Camden. While Philadelphia parents are voting against Mastery, Mastery is opening its doors in Camden without a vote on the horizon. The repudiation of state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson in Newark, whose aggressive closing of schools was a major factor in Mayor Baraka’s rise, is clear as well. The Christie education roadmap, with a state-appointed superintendent, opening of charter schools (with dollars to follow) and aggressive layoffs of the school district, is all in play in Camden.
But there are important differences. The first is that Camden just had a mayoral election, so the option of going to a mayoral race to affect education policy is not on the horizon. Even beyond that, the democratic legacy of Camden is complicated. The city has long faced tradeoffs between the desires of its voters and its constant need to close budget shortfalls.
A recent vote by teachers in Camden’s two magnet schools highlights the tensions at play. Both sets of teachers voted to convert the magnet schools into charter schools. The principals insist that there was no coercion, and the district maintains it has had no role in these decisions. But the context is hard to ignore. This news is coming out at the same time that teachers are hearing about the loss of hundreds of their jobs. It reinforces the idea that in Camden, votes aren’t simple.
There is now enough contextual evidence to dismiss claims that resistance to education “reforms” in Camden are coming from a “small group of critics” or limited to teachers trying to protect their jobs. The urban pushback to these “reforms” is real and demonstrated in Camden’s sister cities. In Newark, Philadelphia, and New York, public elections have demonstrated a clear rejection of plans to radically alter the form of public education. But Camden residents lack that opportunity to reject the educational changes in front of them, and face an uphill battle to claw back influence from local power structures and a state that has a vice-grip on the city’s finances. Democracy isn’t simple in Camden, and Mayor Baraka’s win doesn’t provide a clear road map. It simply gives Camden’s residents, facing so many firings and such bad news, a reason to hope.