Newark School Board Weighing Next Steps In Fight for Local Control

John Mooney | August 1, 2011 | Education
Acting commissioner's letter sets off firestorm of criticism about state's refusal to surrender control of New Jersey's largest school district

Acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf
The Christie administration’s refusal to cede state control of Newark public schools, at least for now, has set off a political chain reaction that could land the continued takeover of its largest school district in court.

The latest development: The district’s local advisory board has scheduled a special meeting tonight to weigh its options, including possible legal appeal.

One of those leading the local effort has been board member Shavar Jeffries, the board’s former president who made the return of local control one of his priorities.
A board resolution has been drafted that calls for legal action, likely starting with an appeal to the State Board of Education but not ruling out a complaint in state appellate court after that, he said.

The situation remained fluid last night, but several people on and off the nine-member board said that such a resolution appears to have overwhelming support, including among competing factions.

The Backstory

Last month, New Jersey’s acting education commissioner Chris Cerf informed the district that despite meeting certain thresholds outlined in state law for returning a district to local control, Newark had not shown “sustained and substantial progress” or the level of overall student achievement that would warrant the state giving up its full oversight.

“While the district has succeeded in achieving an increase in its [monitoring] scores since the last review in spring of 2010, much remains for the Newark School District to ensure that every student receives a high quality education,” Cerf wrote in the July 15 letter.

“We have obtained the highest scores ever achieved, and I’m personally proud of that,” Jeffries said last night. “But on the heels of what the governor said a couple of months ago, there seems a real resistance on the part of the state.”

“Well, folks like me believe that democracy matters,” he said.

Jeffries was referring to Gov. Chris Christie’s comments in May at the appointment of the latest Newark superintendent, Cami Anderson, that the state would retain control of the district for the foreseeable future.

The state has held control of the district since 1995, exercising virtual veto power on major decisions.

Widespread Worry

Ivan Lamourt, another board member, wouldn’t speak to the resolution specifically, but said there was widespread worry about Cerf’s actions.

“We are concerned,” he said. “What else do we have to do to get back local control? What else do we need to prove?”

The argument involves the details of the state’s school monitoring law, enacted in 2006. Known as the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC), the law specifies when the state may or may not intervene in local schools. If a district meets at least 80 percent of the criteria in each of five categories, state intervention is not warranted. Scores below 80 percent lead to different levels of oversight, including full state intervention.

Under the most recent QSAC review, Newark schools scored 80 percent or higher in four of five areas: governance, personnel, fiscal and operations. It fell well short in the fifth category, instruction, which includes student test scores and other achievement measures. In that category, Newark scored 64 percent.

Local leaders have said the law is clear that the state should at least step away in the four areas in which Newark scored 80 percent or higher. But Cerf has said otherwise, and the legal question now comes to how much discretion the administration has after the scores are counted.

The Letter and the Law

Cerf, in his July 15 letter to Superintendent Anderson, did not distinguish among categories and maintained that the overall achievement levels deserved continued state oversight. He cited a 55 percent graduation rate district-wide, and student test scores that left 45 of 75 schools missing federal benchmarks. More than half of all Newark students were below state proficiency levels in either language arts or math, he said.

The letter cited the following provision in the law:

“The Commissioner will consider the following factors in determining whether to initiate a full or partial withdrawal from intervention in a public school district:

“1. Evidence of sustained and substantial progress by the public school district, demonstrated by the public school district having satisfied 80 to 100 percent of the weighted quality performance indicators in one or more of the components of school district effectiveness under State intervention, as shown by the comprehensive reviews, six month reviews by the Department and/or other appropriate evidence; and

“2. Substantial evidence that the public school district has adequate programs, policies and personnel in place and in operation to ensure that the demonstrated progress, with respect to the components of school district effectiveness under intervention, will be sustained.”

Upon the release of the commissioner’s letter, State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) immediately called for legislative hearings.

Cerf was not available for comment this weekend, but his spokesman said the commissioner stood by his decision.