NJEA's Blistan blasts Newark plan

"Misguided, top-down, and illegal"

Published on Tuesday, March 11, 2014

 Marie Blistan
In her testimony, NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan noted that the One Newark plan poses a threat not only in Newark, but also to the very notion of universal public education designed to serve every school-age child in New Jersey.

NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan testified today before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools at its hearing on the controversial One Newark plan.  Blistan told committee members that the plan is a threat “to the very notion of universal public education designed to serve every school-age child in New Jersey,” and explained how it is “misguided, top-down and illegal.”  She called on the committee to use its power to stop the plan and ensure that Newark parents and residents are given a real say in how their children are educated.

Here is the full text of Blistan’s testimony:

Good morning.  I am Marie Blistan, vice president of the New Jersey Education Association.

NJEA represents Newark’s more than 120 certified school nurses, who are in their fourth year without a contract but who still provide a critical service to students.  They are the only healthcare professionals that some children in Newark encounter on a regular basis, and they play a vital role in promoting both better health and positive educational outcomes for the children of Newark. 

In addition, nearly 200 teachers and other school employees in the district are members of NJEA.

I’m here today to speak on behalf of all our members in Newark.  I’m also here to speak on behalf of every educator, school employee, parent, student and resident of New Jersey who cares about public education, because the One Newark plan poses a threat not only in Newark, but also to the very notion of universal public education designed to serve every school-age child in New Jersey.

For nearly two decades, the New Jersey Department of Education has had control of Newark’s schools.  Please keep that in mind when listening to claims by the state-appointed superintendent. She believes that the only solution, after all these years of state control, is to impose a plan on Newark without meaningful input from the community, and over the strong objections of many parents and public school advocates there.  That is the wrong approach, and it’s why I urge you to do everything in your power to prevent her from imposing her misguided, top-down and illegal One Newark plan.

One Newark is misguided in several ways, but especially in its push to replace many neighborhood public schools with charter schools.  Those charters have even less accountability to parents, and to the Newark community, than the Department of Education.

NJEA supports high-quality charter schools, and we believe they have a place alongside traditional public schools as laboratories for innovation.  Charter schools were never intended to undermine or replace traditional public schools, but that is what is happening in Newark.  By giving privileged status to charter schools and treating them as a superior alternative to traditional public schools, the One Newark plan threatens the long-term viability of true public education in Newark.

Such special treatment flies in the face of the available research, which shows that charter schools perform very similarly to traditional public schools when they educate similar student bodies.  There is no educational justification for favoring charter schools as a large-scale solution to the real challenges faced by every school in Newark.

"By giving privileged status to charter schools and treating them as a superior alternative to traditional public schools, the One Newark plan threatens the long-term viability of true public education in Newark."

But that is exactly what has been happening, and will happen more, if the One Newark plan is imposed.  Charter schools, which often have superior resources as a result of private grants and foundation support, are given free or subsidized space in under-resourced traditional schools.  Some charters have been allowed to opt out of the supposedly universal application process, meaning that the well-documented racial and socio-economic disparities in enrollment will be allowed to continue, to the benefit of those privileged schools.

In an especially disgraceful example, the district recently sold one of its public schools to a private charter school operator at far below market rates.  It is beyond my comprehension how the state thinks it has the right to sell property that rightly belongs to the people of Newark, much less to sell it for far less than it is worth.  That may have been a good deal for the private charter school operator.  It may have been good for the Superintendent’s strategy to promote charter schools over traditional public schools.  But it was a bad deal for Newark’s residents, who saw their property taken away with no input and no recourse.

But One Newark isn’t just misguided.  It is also a top-down plan being imposed over the objection of the community it claims to serve.

You’ve seen the outrage of parents and community leaders expressed at meetings and in protests in Newark.  And they have a right to be outraged.  Their schools are being closed and their children are being displaced, but they are not being consulted about whether changes are necessary or what changes should be made.

Instead of engaging with parents and their concerns, the superintendent simply refuses even to attend meetings of the school advisory board.  And she’s taking her cues from the very top.  Last September, when defending the superintendent, Gov. Christie said, and I quote: “I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the school district in Newark, not them."

Please let that sink in.  “I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools, not them.”

Well, he’s right about one thing.  The state runs the schools.  It’s run them for over 18 years.  And now it is trying to use its failure of leadership to impose a plan that will permanently take away any chance for real community input into public education in Newark.  Because the community has no say over how charter schools are run.  And if this plan succeeds, and the charterization of Newark goes forward unimpeded, there will be very little left for the Newark community if and when it ever does get its schools back from the state.

Residents have a right to be angry, and I stand with them in opposition to this plan that will essentially take away any chance of ever regaining meaningful local control of how Newark educates its children.

In addition to being misguided and top-down, components of the One Newark plan are also illegal. 

As you know, the superintendent has announced her intention to fire hundreds of veteran educators in direct violation of the tenure law.  It’s a law that NJEA supported, that each of you on this committee voted for, and that Gov. Christie signed less than two years ago.  That law specifically kept in place the right to due process and the role of seniority in layoff decisions.

The state-appointed superintendent in Newark is not exempt from the laws of the state.  She doesn’t get to pick and choose which laws apply to her.  She doesn’t get to fill the budget hole created by her policies and the state’s under-funding by illegally firing hundreds of career educators.

So I thank the Assembly for passing a resolution opposing her illegal plan.  I thank the members of the Senate who have spoken out against it.  And I reiterate what NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer said at the last meeting of the Advisory Board: NJEA will fight this dishonest, illegal plan at every turn.

The challenges in Newark are great.  It’s going to take everyone – parents, educators, elected leaders, policy makers and community leaders, to meet those challenges.  But the One Newark plan attacks educators, ignores parents, disenfranchises the community and attempts to end-run legislators in pursuit of an agenda that will ultimately harm Newark’s children.

We can do better.  We must do better.  I urge you to use your power to stop this attack on Newark and to insist that the community be given a real say in how its children are educated.

Thank you.

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