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Speaking Out On State-Controlled School Districts

NJ Spotlights asks: What does state control mean to schools, 25 years later.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of New Jersey becoming the first state to effectively take control of a local school district -- Jersey City -- due to its failure to educate.

That was in 1987, and before too long, the state would also seize control of its two other largest districts, Paterson and then Newark. All three remain under some level of state oversight, and there has been growing talk that Camden could join the list.

Yesterday, the State Board of Education -- the body that ultimately must sign off on instituting and ceding controls -- held an unusual meeting at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, where it brought together the heads of the three state-run districts to give updates on their schools.

The presentations were mostly upbeat, each reporting significant gains in bringing about what they described as needed changes in their schools, be it in instruction, personnel, or financing. All acknowledged there remained work ahead.

Afterward, NJ Spotlight asked some of the participants on both the dais and in the audience to define what they believe state control does and should mean after 25 years. Here are some excerpts:

Chris Cerf, New Jersey’s acting education commissioner

I respect the democratic values inherent in local control and believe that we should all be working toward that end in state-operated districts. My first priority, however, is and always will be the educational wellbeing of the students in these districts. To the extent the legitimate interest in local control conflicts with the interests of children, I will always break the tie in favor of the latter.

Christopher Irving, president, Paterson Public Schools advisory board

It simply means no authority and autonomy. Those are the two words, and in every system of government there needs to be a check and balance. Unfortunately for a lot of urban districts, there has been a lot of check but less balance. It’s about equating them. Look at test scores or the district 20 years ago, we have not progressed as far as we should have, and that’s indicative that the state can’t do it alone, the community can’t do it alone, and the superintendent can’t do it alone. It really needs to be a partnership.

Franklin Walker, interim superintendent, Jersey City schools

State control means a number of different things, and I guess it depends on whether the glass is half full or half empty. We like to think it be more positive. We expect state control meaning more support based on our objectives. It’s not a question of disconnect but where we can work collaboratively. Sometimes, politically, the road we each take is different. We have been at this a long time, and sometimes it's just a matter of being in communication more.

Cami Anderson, superintendent, Newark Public Schools

The district's role is to provide an excellent education to every student in Newark. Good governance is essential in the successful stewardship of district resources to raise student achievement. NPS is committed to our public service working with the state and our local advisory board.

Arcelio Aponte, president, state Board of Education

We know state control did not necessarily lead to more positive outcomes of the state-operated school districts. That being said, today’s meeting showed to me that although there is more work being done, I am encouraged about the progress and the focus on student performance. And I think that the leadership they have today is because of state control.

Irene Sterling, president of Paterson Education Fund

Commissioner Cerf’s encouragement for bringing in the kind of expertise that has come into the district in this last year has been really positive, the quality has really gone up in the kind of help we’re getting. And the expectation that we need to produce something for it is really important. As many differences as I have with what’s gone on, the district is in better position to become locally controlled at this point. I have hopes. I think the board is ready, I think the community is ready.

Edythe Fulton, state Board of Education member

I was there in the beginning and think the intention was constructive, but they never had a plan how to get out. At what level do you say have they succeeded or do we try another way. I am really tired about all the negativity of our urban schools. It’s negative, negative, negative, and I think it is unfair. I think they are working closely toward it, and I think we need to be more positive in what they are trying to do and what they have accomplished.

Stan Karp, program director, Education Law Center

The whole purpose of state takeover was supposed to develop a plan and the capacity to return the schools to local review. I think you see in response to their plans in Newark and Paterson, that it is a real issue. It has been at times very dramatic and disruptive interventions, but they can’t have local support without local control. That’s a problem.

Claire Chamberlain, State Board of Education member

Having Cami Anderson as superintendent of Newark is a really good thing for the kids of Newark. I’ve heard her speak a few times, and I found her presentation and articulation of what needs to happen and what has happened extremely compelling. And state control put her there. I know that she wouldn’t be there if she wasn’t reporting to the commissioner and the governor.

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