Gov. Christie’s Stance on Newark Takeover Stirs Debate

John Mooney | May 6, 2011 | Education
Does governor's unwillingness to relinquish control fly in the face of state's formal process on when to step in -- and out?

New Jersey’s 15-year-old takeover of Newark schools got fresh attention this week, not only with Gov. Chris Christie’s appointment of a new superintendent for the district but also with renewed questions as to how long he intends for the state to stay in charge.

Christie made it more than clear in his appointment of New York City school official Cami Anderson to be Newark’s next superintendent that he doesn’t intend for the state’s control of the district to end anytime soon.

“No, absolutely not,” Christie said, when asked about local controls being returned. “I don’t believe there is a track record to do that.”

“I won’t turn it back over until there is success and excellence,” Christie continued. “That’s why it was taken over in the first place: a lack of success and a lack of excellence.”

Yet the state has a formal and precise process for determining how it begins and ends its intervention in schools, one that its author said yesterday should be allowed to run its course.

“I think the governor is wrong,” said state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), who has already clashed with Christie over education policy.

“Under the law there is a process and there are reviews that are conducted,” Rice said. “If you make the indicators, you get back control. But it seems to me, their whole idea is just to keep control no matter what.”

A Sticky Situation

The issue of the state’s oversight of any district has long been a sticky situation, and one that revisions in the takeover law five years ago were meant to address.

The revised process, known as the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC), was intended to provide a clean exit strategy for the state’s three takeover districts at the time, Newark, Paterson and Jersey City.

New Jersey’s takeover law of 20 years earlier — the first in the country — provided little guidance for ending the state’s oversight. QSAC laid out a clear scorecard in which the state would rate a local district’s capacity in five key areas: finance, instruction, personnel, governance and operations.

If a district could meet 80 percent of the criteria in any one category, it would regain those controls. If it fell below that, there would be different levels of intervention.

And slowly, the new process began to bear some results. Jersey City — the first district in the country taken over by a state — slowly weaned itself from state control through the QSAC process.

Yet Newark and Paterson have proven tougher cases. In the latest step in the QSAC process in Newark a district self-evaluation reported in November that it met the requirements for local control in four out of the five areas, all but instruction.

But that was four months ago, and the state has yet to act on the recommendations, officials said, with Christie’s words this week indicating that the administration may not necessarily agree that the community is ready to take care of its schools.

Following Christie’s comments on Wednesday, acting education Commissioner Chris Cerf tried to clarify the state’s stand. He said the state would “honor the process” of QSAC, even though he acknowledges he doesn’t like it much either.

“But I agree with the governor,” Cerf added about Newark. “At the end of the day, it should be about whether the kids are learning, and not 360 items on a checklist.”

Still, the debate has also left some wondering if the notion of full state takeovers of school districts has become a misnomer. For the past decade, much of Newark’s upper management has been made up of homegrown talent, and the local elected advisory board has been an increasing presence in the district. Former superintendent Mario Bolden, appointed by the state, often clashed with the state as well.

One of those concerned a little at the governor’s unequivocal words on Wednesday was Clement Price, the Rutgers University professor who led a local task force that reviewed the superintendent candidates.

“I wish the governor had been more nuanced as to what state operation and local control means,” Price said afterward. “There already is an element of local control. If there wasn’t, the task force wouldn’t have convened and I wouldn’t have devoted so much time to it.”

“Yes, the state control of the budget and the superintendent are a big piece, but not the only piece,” he said. “Local control is already being restored in important ways.”