By Rann Miller | AC JosepH Media Guest Blogger
Over the last few weeks, numerous reports and story have come out about George Norcross and his oversight of in facilitating tax breaks for himself and those connected to him professionally. The other day while on Facebook, I read a comment from a Camden resident, who is African-American, saying that “Norcross isn’t the problem. Parents are the problem.”
That comment made me reflect on the current education landscape in Camden and the influence of George Norcross on it.
His role, in addition to the role of the Chris Christie in the state legislature, which at the time included brother Donald Norcross and childhood friend Steve Sweeney, shaped the way education in Camden looks today. However are Camden residents to blame for the change in education policy in Camden? Or, have political actors taken things upon themselves to do what they think is best for Black and Brown people in an impoverished area? I argue that it is the latter.
I understand the argument citing self-determination. I also understand the argument for respectability politics (while I don’t agree with it). However, neither course (civic engagement or assimilating behavior) could have prevented what happened in Camden. Rutgers University professor Domingo Morel laid out the blueprint for how Camden, and other cities like it in New Jersey, reach where Camden currently is. Morel’s research shows that school districts controlled by Black residence are subject to a takeover by state government more than school districts controlled by non-Blacks. Using Newark as a case study, Morel discovered the timeline of events that precipitates a state takeover of a school district.
A school district’s leadership, predominantly White, is challenged by Black parents who cite their lack of representation in the classroom, principal’s office and school governance. Such advocacy could involve a lawsuit. In the case of Newark, Black people sued and the courts ruled in their favor. Black representation increases on school boards and Black educators are hired. Once they arrive, they see how injustice i.e. racism has impacted school funding or the lack of it. Where Black and Brown people are marginalized from employment and housing opportunities, you’ll find people with limited socioeconomic mobility concentrated together – where schools lack in fair funding.
In New Jersey, The residents in such areas i.e. Newark, Camden, Atlantic City, Jersey City, Paterson, Trenton and etc. sued the state of New Jersey for equitable funding. Five major court cases later (see Abbott), the state has to ensure that low income municipalities are funded equitably to non-low income municipalities. Essentially, tax dollars are re-distributed so that low income municipalities are able to adequately educate students. Now, not only are black parents electing themselves to the school board and thus securing positions within the school district, but they are in charge fiscally appropriating that money – monies coming from all over the state. That may not sit well with suburban resident who believe that Black and Brown people to be incompetent.
Students in these municipalities who perform poorly according to state benchmarks provide just enough fodder for politicians to cry foul and say that these districts, who now have more money at their disposal, are mismanaging education funding. Thus, politicians, influenced by lobbyists and power brokers, work to pass legislation that enables them the control to intervene in the affairs of said school district. In other words, they can take control of the administrative, educational and fiscal affairs of the school district. That’s exactly what happened in Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson. It happened to Camden in 2013.
Under a state takeover, the school board is just an advisory group. Any decisions made on behalf of the district are made by the governor’s office. The governor installs a CEO or superintendent of his or her choosing to carry out the governor’s decisions. A governor with the support and collaboration of the state legislature can get almost any piece of legislation passed to help further their agenda concerning the district that they are in control of. Governor Christie elected to take over the fiscal, educational, and administrative affairs of the Camden City Schools District in 2013.
He installed his own superintendent, an individual who had little to no experience in the classroom. Christie’s plan for addressing education in Camden City was to hand over schools that were underperforming academically according to state benchmarks to charter school operators. In order to do that, he needed legislation to solidify his authority to do so. Working with him to make that happen was senate president Steve Sweeney and South Jersey Democratic Party boss George Norcross.
What is important to note is that Norcross’ brother was a member of the state Senate as well; sponsoring the bill. The Urban Hope Act was passed which gave Governor Christie the authority to appropriate control of select Camden schools to charter management organizations; those schools were labeled “renaissance schools.” Cut out of the process were parents – whether they disagreed or agreed with the plan, they had little to no say so.
Parents who could afford to leave Camden left and put their kids in different school districts. Other parents had their children in other charter schools unaffiliated with approved renaissance schools. The remaining parents made peace with the circumstances and chose to either keep their kid(s) in district schools or put their child(ren) in a renaissance school. Parents whose neighborhood schools turned over to a renaissance school enrolled their child(ren) there.
Not loss in this changing of the guard was the closure of Lanning Square Family School. It was replaced by a brand new building operated by KIPP under the name the Cooper Norcross KIPP Academy. The sponsor organization of that renaissance school is Cooper Hospital; the chairman of that hospital is George Norcross. You don’t have to be in investigative reporter to connect the dots, although they are starting to. Clearly, there are stakeholders that play politics with the lives and futures of the people who’ve have their power taken from them. Pathologies and tropes aimed at POC aren’t to blame here. Racial paternalism and power are.
Bio: Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer, and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @UrbanEdDJ.