Christie Seeks to Reshape School Accountability Mandates in Federal Waiver

John Mooney | May 26, 2015 | Education
Education Law Center says proposal would give too much leeway, with less openness, over state-controlled urban schools

U.S. Department of Education
The Christie administration has asked the federal government to allow some changes in the state’s accountability system for its most troubled schools, including the administration’s own state-controlled schools.

This spring, the state filed for renewal of its three-year-old waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as the Obama administration continued to seek ways for states to escape the dictates of the NCLB law.

That initial waiver allowed the state to set up a new way of classifying schools in need of intervention, categorizing the lowest performing schools as “priority schools” and designating as “focus schools” those with large performance gaps between different subgroups of students.

In its application to extend the waiver – which was filed on March 30 but was released only recently under the state’s Open Public Records Act — the Christie administration is seeking to differentiate even within those categories.

The proposal is for three tiers within each of those categories, including one specifically for schools in the four state-operated districts: Newark, Camden, Paterson and Jersey City.

In those cases, the schools would not fall under the Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) that were the centerpiece of the first waiver application but would be the responsibility of only to the state’s appointed superintendent and, in turn, the state commissioner.

“This unique relationship between the Superintendent in a State-operated district and the Commissioner necessitates a different RAC support model that is customized to the State-operated Superintendent’s plan of action,” reads the application.

But reforms under way in the state-run districts – particularly in Newark and Camden – have been point of contention with local activists and statewide critics who contend that there is already too little accountability required of the state-appointed superintendents.

Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson has come under especially heavy criticism for her moves, with widespread protests over her classification of so-called “turnaround schools,” including a downtown march involving as many as 2,000 high school students on Friday.

The Education Law Center last week sent a letter urging the U.S. Department of Education to reject the proposed new classification system for the state-run districts, saying it would affect more than 200 schools overall. It said such an exemption would allow for initiatives without any regard for federal or state guidelines.

“The Commissioner offers no justification or basis for withdrawing RAC intervention and support from low performing schools in Newark and the other districts under State control,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark-based ELC.

“If anything, the Commissioner should redouble efforts to boost instruction, curriculum and outcomes, instead of walking away from the students, teachers and principals in these State-run schools.”

The ELC previously filed a formal complaint with the federal government alleging that Anderson, with approval from the Christie administration, has already disregarded interventions from the RAC serving school districts in Essex and Hudson counties.

In addition to the separate tier for state-run districts, the administration is proposing another tier for low-performing school districts where the capacity for improvements is limited and extra efforts are required from the state.

The federal government has yet to act on the state’s waiver-renewal application.