Could State-Run ‘Achievement School District’ Be Last Resort for Failing Schools?

Grant application to Broad Foundation sheds light on Cerf’s idea for lowest-performing schools

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Education Commissioner Chris Cerf is mulling an "Achievement School District" for failing schools.
The Christie administration is weighing the idea of creating a separate state-run “achievement school district” that would be comprised of New Jersey’s very lowest-performing schools, complete with vast new powers in controlling personnel and programs.

The proposal was part of a $7.6 million grant application to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation made last February, a proposal that never moved to full fruition after the foundation approved a smaller amount, officials now say.

But it will nonetheless be at least part of a broader study of last-resort options for schools that is being conducted by an outside national organization, officials said.

Released as part of a public records request, they are the first formal outlines of an idea that Gov. Chris Christie’s education commissioner, Chris Cerf, has long flirted with and continues to contend should be an option to consider for persistently laggard schools.

In the grant application, the new “district” would call for the possible unilateral closing of the worst performing schools and reopening them under new outside management, including the suspension of collective bargaining agreements. It is similar to the “recovery districts” that have been employed in post-Katrina Louisiana, as well as Tennessee and Detroit.

“We essentially said this is worth serious deliberation,” Cerf said this week of the application. “What do you do when you have thrown everything at a school, and it still doesn’t work?”

Still, Cerf readily acknowledged it would need new law and regulations that have yet to be proposed. In the meantime, the department is embarking on its own aggressive strategies for revamping schools within their districts, as they now exist.

“To do that would require an act of the Legislature, and we are explicitly clear about that in the application,” he said.

The proposals came to light on Tuesday through the Education Law Center of Newark, the advocacy group that has been at frequent odds with the Christie administration over its education reform agenda.

The center obtained the documents through an open public records request and included it in a press release that painted the approach as part of what it called Christie’s plan to decimate public schools.

“This is a terrible idea,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the center. “To borrow this idea from New Orleans, that is hardly evidence this can work and in fact is evidence to the contrary.”

Sciarra in an interview yesterday also repeated what has been a mounting question among some in the state to the influence of the Broad Foundation in education policy. Cerf is a graduate of Broad’s Leadership training program, as is two of his top assistants, and with this grant, Broad has agreed in the past two years to give more than $2 million in grants to help train staff and develop policy in the state.

“The commissioner is making commitments to a foundation in California that he will follow through on reforms virtually in secret and with no public vetting of these proposals as they relate to the needs of children in New Jersey,” Sciarra said.

Cerf and other state officials argued that there was never any secrecy in their intentions, pointing to a separate memo sent to districts last week that outlined the eventual $1.5 million grant agreement struck with Broad Foundation and the Council for Chief State School Officers, the national organization of state education commissioners.

Cerf has openly supported the notion of a recovery district in the past as well, including having visited New Orleans two years ago to talk with officials there. Broad also funded that trip. He also included the possible closing of schools in a recent federal waiver.

Still, the nine-page Broad proposal provides far more detail than previously discussed publicly.

Importantly, it only proposes the notion of a state-run “district” for schools where other, ongoing reform efforts have failed. The state is scheduled to embark this fall on a network of seven Regional Achievement Centers across the state that would focus on the lowest rung of performers, known as Priority Schools, providing on-site assistance and training. A fair amount of the Broad application details that strategy.

But where it goes into new territory is what the department called “advanced interventions.”

“In the rare instances where local schools, districts, or boards of education are either unwilling or incapable of pursuing improvement strategies in a collaborative fashion, or where sufficient improvement is not made, NJDOE will exercise its authority to ensure that every child has access to a quality education,” the application read.

It does point out significant hurdles from the outset, including the need to further research how the state would go about creating a new district and what authority the state would hold in closing schools and reopening them.

But once determined, the department said it would “support legislation establishing an Achievement School District,” where all Priority Schools would be automatically eligible and the commissioner would make the final decision, not open to appeal.

The schools under state operation would receive the same funding as district schools, it said, and “all schools would be freed from the district’s collective bargaining agreement, and the school’s operator will have control over personnel decisions.”

Cerf this week didn’t distance himself from any of the proposal, but likened it to a wish list for the administration and just one eventual option. Instead, the department is moving ahead with a toned-down version in which the Council for Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) will start by providing recruitment and training for the new RACs.

Still, close to $1 million of the total to CCSSO will include further research into the “advanced intervention strategies,” including those laid out by the state.

According to the grant agreement, CSSO will “provide in-depth research, as well as strategic recommendations and operational plan proposals for the Department’s consideration in the creation of advanced intervention strategies for low performing schools that do not make sufficient progress after receiving Regional Achievement Center support.”