The Christie administration took some big steps in the past week to return the state-run Newark public schools to local control, in ways both seen and unseen.
One notable step was the State Board of Education’s vote last Wednesday to return incremental authority to the local community over certain personnel powers. It was the third of five major categories now moved to local hands, continuing Gov. Chris Christie’s pledge to move away from the state’s 22-year control of the state’s largest school district.
Less noticed, and maybe more notable, was the administration’s actions on the two remaining — and most critical — categories: instruction and governance. In what may be an unprecedented move, the administration agreed to use a whole new metric for determining academic achievement in the district, approving the its request for an equivalency waiver from the existing state-monitoring regulations known as Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) .
Instead of QSAC’s reliance on static scores, graduation rates and other measures, the district won the state’s approval to measure growth and progress in these areas. Whether the Newark schools will meet them is still to be determined, but the new process is a big step for a district that was consistently falling short of QSAC’s requirements.
In addition, the Christie administration gave the district passing – albeit preliminary -- scores in the area of school board governance, maybe the most critical of all as it determines whether the local board can pick its own school superintendent.
A second assessment will take place in six months, and if progress continues, it could then set in motion a transition of power by 2017.
These are still tentative steps in the process of ending the state’s epic controls of the district, but even longtime critics said the light at the end of the tunnel appears to be coming into focus.
“Local control should have been returned by now, and it’s an injustice that it has not,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, both the local board’s chairman and education advisor to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who has been outspoken in calling for local control. “But on the other hand, this is a victory,” she said of the latest actions. “People have been fighting for this for years, and this is a step in the right direction.”
Baskerville-Richardson said she was confident that true local controls could be a year or, at most, two away.
The process is by no means a simple one, however, and the administration’s approval of a new grading system for rating student achievement is especially complex, not to mention intriguing for not just Newark but scores of districts statewide.
Under QSAC, all districts need to meet 80 percent of what were dozens of metrics, including overall proficiency rates on state tests and graduation rates for high schools.
Instead, Newark has submitted an alternative system that will examine how the district shows improvements on a vast array of measures. For instance, the district will be measured on whether it improves on the number of schools with high rates of absenteeism. Several of the new measures use “student growth percentiles,” a new statewide metric for comparing students’ progress against their peers.
Each of the measures carries its own grades and weights, but the district’s current superintendent — one appointed by Christie himself — said it is a much truer grading system. “If we hit these numbers, it will show we have made tremendous progress in much more sophisticated ways than just an 80 percent proficiency,” Newark superintendent Chris Cerf said yesterday.