Montclair, New Jersey, is a beautiful suburb, not far from New York City, which has long had a reputation for its good schools and its successful racial integration. But lately its schools and parents have been in turmoil. The town is split between supporters of public education and supporters of “reform” (aka privatization and testing). Recently the “reformers” have subpoenaed emails of those who support public schools, looking for a nefarious plot, for sources of funding, undue influence by teachers’ unions, or for any contacts with that notorious critic of corporate reform, Diane Ravitch. Apparently, their search turned up nothing. No national plot; no outside funding; no contact with me. Just local parents trying to fight off privatization and high-stakes testing. The corporate reformers filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for more than 1,000 emails written by Michelle Fine, who is a professor the City University of New York and a vocal critic of privatization and high-stakes testing.
Why Montclair? Montclair not only has parents devoted to their local public schools, it also is home to some of the most celebrated luminaries of the corporate reform movement. Voila! A clash of David and Goliath!
As Stan Karp explained in this article contrasting the two faces of “reform” in Newark and Montclair, Montclair adopted a mayor-appointed board to maintain its integration policy. But times changed, and in the current political context, the appointed board brought in a Broad-trained superintendent, whose actions deepened the divisions.
As the policy context for education reform has changed, the appointed board has become increasingly contentious.
It was against this backdrop that, in the summer of 2012, as Cami Anderson was hollowing out Newark, Montclair hired a new superintendent. Penny MacCormack was new to the state, had never been a superintendent, and wasn’t known to many in Montclair. But those who track state education politics knew she had been a district official in Connecticut who was recruited by Cerf to be an assistant commissioner in Christie’s DOE. The department had received several grants from the Eli Broad Foundation and was staffed with multiple Broad “fellows.” MacCormack, Cerf, and Anderson all have Broad ties.
MacCormack was at the N.J. Department of Education for less than a year when she suddenly resurfaced as the new Montclair superintendent without any public vetting, a clear sign the board knew this was a controversial hire.
Her welcome reception began with a video about the origins of the magnet system in the struggle to integrate the town’s schools. Some honored town elders who had played key roles were in the audience. MacCormack awkwardly attempted to connect her vision to the compelling town history framed in the video. Despite the town’s commitment to equity, she said, wide “achievement gaps” remained, and addressing those gaps would be her No. 1 priority.
MacCormack didn’t pledge to restore the equity supports that had been eroded in recent years or challenge Christie’s budget cuts. Instead, she announced that the Common Core standards and tests, and the state’s new teacher evaluation mandates, would “level the playing field” and “raise expectations for all.” “And,” she said, “I will be using the data to hold educators accountable and make sure we get results.”
After she finished, a latecomer took the floor and told the audience how lucky Montclair was to have MacCormack come to town. It was Jon Schnur, the architect of the Race to the Top. He also lives in Montclair. We later learned that Schnur was MacCormack’s “mentor” in a certification program she enrolled in after being hired without the required credentials to be superintendent.
In Montclair, there was no formal state takeover and no contested school board elections. Instead, the long reach of corporate education reform had used influence peddling, backdoor connections, and a compliant appointed school board to install one of their own at the head of one of the state’s model districts.
Over the next few months, MacCormack’s plans took shape, drawing on a familiar playbook. There was major shuffling at central office; experienced staff were replaced by well-paid imports. Half the district’s principals were moved or replaced.
The new superintendent created a multiyear strategic plan: a 20-page list of bulleted goals, strategies, and benchmarks. One stood out. MacCormack wanted to implement “districtwide Common Core-aligned quarterly assessments in reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, and science” from kindergarten through 12th grade.” The proposal quickly became a dividing line.
The school board backed McCormack’s plan for Common Core and more frequent testing; a large number of residents pushed back against the quarterly tests, forming a group called Montclair Cares About Schools (MCAS). The parents held public forums and collected signatures for petitions.
But then things took a bizarre turn:
A few days before the first quarterlies were to be given, things went completely off the rails. Emails began circulating that some of the tests had been found on an internet scavenger site, GoBookie, which robotically scoops up and sells documents without authorization.
The news traveled quickly. The board called an emergency meeting to initiate an investigation, not just into the source of the released tests, but also into “other incidents of conduct that may be contrary to the board’s best interest.”
The board began issuing subpoenas. It sought one board member’s private emails and phone records, and warned teachers not “to destroy any emails or documents related to the investigation.” It even went after anonymous critics on local social media sites, issuing subpoenas for their internet addresses so the critics could be questioned.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey stepped in and told the board their subpoenas were a gross violation of free speech rights. Still, the board pressed its investigation through months of turmoil and mounting legal fees. Finally, a state agency quietly confirmed that the tests had been posted online in error. The furor was fueled by a mistake, not an act of sabotage.
The episode dealt a serious blow to the board’s credibility. It also reflected the distorted priorities of corporate reform. As LynNell Hancock, journalism professor and grandmother of a 5th grader, wrote on Valerie Strauss’ education blog: “This is a Montclair I hardly recognize. It’s not the children, the quality of the schools or the town’s democratic values that have changed. It’s a paradigm shift in school leadership, a top-down technocratic approach that narrows its focus to “fixing” schools by employing business strategies—more testing, more administrators, limited interference by the public or the teacher union.”
As matters heated up, with charges and countercharges, Superintendent McCormack abruptly resigned to accept another job.
But the avengers of corporate reform did not give up in their battle for control.
Mark Naison wrote this week:
In Montclair NJ, a strong coalition of parents and educators has resisted, and pushed back corporate reform. This in the very town where so many of the national ed deformers live.
After a two year struggle, the Broad Academy Superintendent resigned, leaving behind an $11.5 million dollar deficit. Within a week, the mayor, the President of the Montclair Teachers Association and the Board of School Estimate resolved the budget crisis with little loss to staff positions. And by the end of the year, we enjoyed a 48% opt out rate on the PARCC, a new pro-public education interim Superintendent and Board of Education. Education may be back in the hands of educators.
But in this town where national reform luminaries live, they have not swallowed defeat gracefully.
With substantial funding, they formed Montclair Kids First and hired Shavar Jeffries, who ran for mayor in Newark and lost on a pro-charter platform, as their lawyer. Jeffries went to work bringing ethics charges against a progressive town councilman, relying upon the Open Records Act to extract emails of key progressive board members, principals and the President of the teachers union and FOILed more than 1000 of Michelle Fine’s emails over two years.
Watch out, hide the kids. MCAS and CUNY are coming after Montclair Schools!
MKF (and the MSW laundered emails on their blog) came looking for the union(s); external funding; a national game-plan; a proxy relationship to Diane Ravitch. They found no money or funding, just parents and a community organizing to save public schools from the tentacles of reforms. These are the tired tactics education reformers use: They live in a world of opposition files created for their critics. They throw money to fund their reforms; they throw money to silence their opponents. But when they find nothing, they resort to tactics like this—their latest propaganda piece, a movie version of private emails.
But propaganda can be a tricky thing. MSW posts are no more accurate now than they were before they had access to private emails, full of misattributions and ideas out of context. Expensive glossy MKF mailers bring on the tired reform narrative of failing schools only to be corrected by parents and school officials; and their recent propaganda film has popped up, like a jack in the box clown, above Michelle Fine’s many wonderful talks on race, justice, and privatization of education—an unintended counterpoint to their silly video. And if MCAS weren’t enough, they now claim CUNY is after Montclair Schools! Cue up the eerie music and dial up your paranoia. Enjoy the sounds and images of desperate reformers looking for your support.