Mess in Montclair, Attacks Get Personal, and 'Reformers' Place Kids Last

The battle over education in Montclair, New Jersey took a very nasty turn as self-proclaimed school "reform" advocates launched personal attacks on their opponents. The ad hominem attacks on their opponents, including Professor Michelle Fine of the City University of New York, are not part of any discussion of issues but are designed to embarrass and silence. Though their organization calls itself Montclair Kids First, their campaign places the education of children last.

According to Stan Karp, part of a group of Montclair residents who oppose the "reformers," the town is an "unlikely target for a crusade whose calling card has been a sky-is-falling narrative of failure." In an article in Rethinking Schools, Karp described Montclair as a "racially diverse community of 38,000" that is "about 60 percent white, 30 percent African American, 10 percent Latina/o and Asian." The town has a court-ordered magnet school program established in the 1970s to ensure diversity in its schools, full-day, free pre-K programs at each of its elementary schools, strong parental involvement, and a history of efforts to address gaps in opportunity. While Karp believes "Montclair High School has ongoing tracking and equity issues," its students are generally very successful and it "typically sends more than 90 percent of its graduates to college." According to Karp, "Warts and all -- and there have always been many -- Montclair schools reflected a democratic vision of what public education aspired to be."

Karp argues that the current battle in Montclair is rooted in three areas of contention, one particular to Montclair, and two that are part of the broader conflict over education in the United States. Part of a 1970s court school desegregation decision was the establishment of an appointed school board selected by the mayor, supposedly to separate education policy from local politics. The other two problems are financial stress in the district because state and federal funding has declined as percent of general revenue and the emergence of the school "reform" movement backed by locally-based, politically powerful, "high-profile corporate education reformers." They include former New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, a Chris Christie ally who will be the next Superintendent of Education in Newark, Jonathan Alter, a longtime supporter of the KIPP charter school network, Jon Schnur, the architect of the federal Race to the Top program, and officials connected to Uncommon Schools, the Achievement First Network, Success Academies, and KIPP.

The battle in Montclair heated up in 2012 when Montclair's appointed school board hired Penny MacCormack as its new school superintendent. MacCormack had close ties to the Eli Broad Foundation and was recruited to come to New Jersey from Connecticut by Cerf when he was serving in the Christie administration.

MacCormack announced her agenda as school superintendent was the same as the so-called educational reformers. She was going to implement Common Core standards, high-stakes testing, and New Jersey's new teacher evaluation mandates. Instead of building alliances, MacCormack declared war on teachers and the teacher's union promising she would be "using the data to hold educators accountable and make sure we get results." She also reshuffled leadership in the district, quickly replacing experienced staff in the central office and moving or replacing half of the district's principals.

The most contentious part of the MacCormack reforms was a proposal to implement "districtwide Common Core-aligned quarterly assessments in reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, and science" from kindergarten through 12th grade." MacCormack's Common Core times four incited parental and teacher opposition and the formation of a group, Montclair Cares About Schools (MCAS). After two years of organizing, petitioning, meeting, speaking at school board meetings, and fighting, MCAS pressure finally forced MacCormack to resign. One result of this campaign was that Montclair had one of the highest opt-out rates on mandated assessments of any school district in New Jersey.

Another key player in Montclair's so-called education reform movement is Donald Katz, founder of an audio book company whose wife was one of the appointed members of the Montclair school board. According to an April 2015 article in NorthJersey.com, Katz pledged to support the reformers' group, Montclair Kids First, both politically and financially. In a March email, Katz encouraged Montclair residents to join Montclair Kids First because "outside money and influence has come in to stop any progress to make the schools better, all of this to avoid ever holding a teacher accountable and protecting employment gains versus a good education for all kids." Katz defined progress as the high-stakes standardized testing of students to measure not student learning but teacher performance. He went on to accuse a Montclair Times columnist of being "a member of the small front organization trying to resist all positive change" and denounced "the utter absence of truth-telling by journalists" who had the audacity to disagree with the high-stakes testing regime.

After MacCormack resigned, Montclair Kids First turned its attention on discrediting CUNY Professor Michelle Fine, a Montclair resident, who was active in MCAS and Sean Spiller, a statewide NJEA officer and a local councilmember who serves on the Montclair Board of School Estimate. It hired one of New Jersey's more prominent legal firms and led by Shavar Jeffries, who was active politically in nearby Newark's pro-charter school reforms. As a result of Jeffries efforts, ethics charges were brought against Spiller and the City University of New York, responding to a New York State Freedom Of Information Law request, made public thousands of Fine's emails sent or received using their server.

Michelle Fine, a Montclair resident and a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center, is a longtime educational activist and a leader of the Montclair Cares About Schools anti-MacCormack campaign. Her released emails were posted online on the Montclair Kids First website and became the subject of an attack video. According to the Montclair Times, over 400 of the emails discussed the Montclair school campaign. There is also an online petition defending Fine.

I reviewed many of the emails and the video, which is no longer posted. During the heat of the campaign and in the excitement after MacCormack resigned, Fine was intemperate, a little conspiratorial, and used inappropriate language. I confess, during the course of my lifetime I have used some of those words also and so have most of you. The emails are personally embarrassing and I am sure Michelle Fine wishes she could take some of her comments back.

The real problem is that Montclair Kids First is using Fine's emails to discredit opposition to corporate school reformer and high-stakes testing and to support their campaigns to weaken teacher unions and privatize public education. They are also using their well-financed legal efforts to frighten opponents into caution and silence. Email is so fast and convenient that most users have written something in haste we wish we could erase from cyberspace. Me too. But I am ready, so if the corporate education deformers want to come after me, bring it on!