Fine Print: Bill Seeks to Clear Path to Ending State Control of Urban Schools

John Mooney | March 26, 2014 | Education
Legislation would return certain functions to local board in Newark, then to Paterson, Jersey City and Camden districts, if benchmarks are met

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)
What it is: A bill filed this week by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate’s education committee, would require the state to return control of certain functions to a school district once it hits 80 percent of required benchmarks. The state’s law now includes the 80 percent threshold, but allows the state education commissioner to continue the state’s oversight if he or she decides the district has not shown “sustained and substantial progress.”

What it means: The legislation is prompted specifically by the ongoing fight in Newark, where the state’s two-decade control has been roundly contested after the district two years ago hit the 80 percent threshold in four of five monitored categories.

The Christie administration nonetheless refused to give up the controls. A court challenge was rejected, although the administration agreed to at least start talks in the area of fiscal oversight.

Committee hearing: The release of the bill came on the same day that Ruiz’s committee hosted a hearing on the school-monitoring process and ways to improve it. Superintendents from Jersey City and Paterson spoke, as did a half-dozen other school leaders who all agreed that the process needs much improvement.

More to come: Ruiz said yesterday that the bill is only the first installment of what she hopes will be further legislation to clean up the school-monitoring law — known as the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) — that has left New Jersey operating four school districts, without a clear exit strategy.

“This (bill) looks like the most obvious thing we can do, and one of the ways we can clean up the process without bringing unintended consequences,” Ruiz said. “I don’t think it is enough in itself, but at least it is a clearer measuring point for districts.”

New Jersey’s dubious “first:” The state was the first in the country to take over a school district, when it seized operations of Jersey City’s system in 1989. But while it has returned some control over governance and budgeting, the state continues to maintain partial control of the schools in that city.

Meanwhile, the state retains full control of the schools in Paterson (taken over in 1991), Newark (1994) and Camden (2013). In each case, there has been little consensus on whether the takeovers have improved schools or learning.

Déjà vu all over again: The debate over how to end state control of those school districts is almost as old as the takeovers themselves, with several iterations through the years of monitoring laws that were meant to ease the exit process.

Hespe, redux: The state’s new education commissioner, David Hespe, is himself a veteran of the debates. When he was appointed to be commissioner under former Gov. Christie Whitman, one of his first tasks was to start the state’s exit from Jersey City schools, a process that is still evolving. He also chaired a task force appointed by Gov. Chris Christie that looked at regulations and red tape that New Jersey’s schools face as a whole, including rules and requirements linked to the monitoring process.

An alternative: The Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group that had led the Abbott v. Burke litigation, has proposed a series of changes to the QSAC law as it relates to takeover districts. Among its most notable recommendations is the appointment of an outside entity to judge the state’s performance in its control of the districts.