Questions Arise About Status of State’s Monitoring of School Districts

John Mooney | July 22, 2015 | Education
How much does state need to revamp QSAC for when Newark returns to local control, along with other districts and maybe even charters?

Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex)
Few may know what the abbreviation stands for, but the New Jersey’s decade-old school-monitoring system — known as “QSAC” — has been in the spotlight of late as new questions are raised about the state oversight of public schools.

The most pressing questions have to do with how QSAC — which stands for Quality Single Accountability Continuum — may need to change if and when the Christie administration delivers on its high-profile promise to return Newark schools to local control.

Similar issues of an easier exit strategy have been raised about the three other state-operated districts as well.

Yet the law’s chief author and prime sponsor is saying there’s no need to discard QSAC en masse, maintaining that it’s more a matter of adjustment than overhaul.

“The problem is not QSAC, but how the state has implemented it,” said state Sen. Ronald Rice Sr. (D-Essex) in an interview yesterday, after what has been a busy few weeks for his statute.

Both state and local officials have said that most likely major changes would be needed for QSAC, a prescriptive checklist of compliance and performance measures given every three years. Covering five main areas, it has proven increasingly difficult for districts to meet all five, even in less-troubled communities.

Other questions have been posed as to whether changes to QSAC for state-run districts would apply to other districts as well. And this week, a legislative hearing was held to discuss if charter schools should be following some of the same rules, an especially testy topic.

Rice cochaired the discussion about charter schools on Monday before the Joint Committee for the Public Schools, and pulled few punches in his now-familiar criticism of the charter-school growth and what he called its lack of accountability and transparency under the Christie administration.

But when the question came as to whether charters should fall under QSAC, Rice yesterday hedged his answer, suggesting that charters might be better served in a separate monitoring system but should be meeting similar requirements as QSAC.

“Why should they be measured any differently [than district schools]?” he said. “That’s a debate going on around the country.”

Regardless, it’s a crossroads for QSAC, and Rice is not the only one asking the questions.

[related]On the same day the State Board of Education approved former state commissioner Chris Cerf to take the helm of Newark schools, its members grappled with questions about how to find a monitoring system that would apply fairly to all districts — without even getting into the issue of charter schools.

At its monthly meeting, the board faced its routine list of districts that had completed the latest round of QSAC monitoring, with all but two of 30 falling short in the area of instruction. And for a majority of those, state officials said, it came down to whether they had a formal curriculum in place that guided their classroom instruction.

That left the board asking whether the state should further customize QSAC to take into account the severity of the problems, something the Christie administration has endorsed and started to adapt its approaches.

“As we debate QSAC and what we need to do to fix it [for the takeover districts], this presents a whole different set of questions for us,” said Ronald Butcher, the board’s longest-serving member.

Rice, speaking yesterday, said he would like to see a series of changes addressed in the law. One would be measuring student performance, shifting the focus more toward progress and growth on a variety of parameters and away from relying on static numbers on state tests.

He said he would also like address the discretion allowed the state commissioner in the QSAC law, despite its strict lines of compliance. It was that discretion that Cerf, as state education commissioner, employed to withhold certain local controls for Newark in 2012.

“We certainly should have some discretion in the law, but not where it can be abused,” he said.

But Rice said so far he’s not sure where the matter is headed. He has spoken to some state officials, as well as members of a new task force formed in Newark to lay out some guideposts for returning controls.

“I’m not sure what’s next,” he said. “We need to sit down and talk about it.”

He maintained that all this could take place under the QSAC law as it now stands, wondering if all the talk about changing the law is only meant to delay progress.

“QSAC doesn’t need to be rewritten to get control back right now,” he said.