Op-Ed: Charting the Path to Local Control for Newark’s Public Schools

Theresa Luhm | July 27, 2015 | Opinion
QSAC maps out a clear and expeditious approach for moving Newark’s state-controlled schools back under home rule

Theresa Luhm
In June, Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka announced the establishment of the Newark Educational Success Board (NESB), a nine-member panel charged with “developing a clear, specific pathway with appropriate timelines and benchmarks for the return of local control [of the public schools] to the Newark community” after more than 20 years of state operation. The Board will meet soon and should seize this unprecedented opportunity to jumpstart the restoration of local authority under the process established by the New Jersey Legislature a decade ago.

In 2005, the Legislature enacted a law establishing a performance-monitoring system for all school districts across the state. Known as the Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or QSAC, the law also provides a clear and expeditious path for restoring local control to state-operated districts.

QSAC requires a detailed evaluation of five different school district functions: instruction and program, operations, governance, personnel, and fiscal management. The law sets a score of 80 as the threshold for restoring local control in any one or more of these areas. Newark has already achieved scores above 80 in the areas of operations and fiscal management, and those functions were restored to local authority in 2007 and 2014, respectively. However, until the crucial area of governance is returned, the State maintains the authority to appoint the superintendent and veto any decision made by the Newark Advisory Board, effectively retaining control over the district.

Newark’s most recent publicly available QSAC score in governance, released in June 2014 as part of an interim, six-month review, was 76, only four points short of the benchmark and well above dozens of other districts not under state control. However, Commissioner of Education David Hespe has yet to release the scores from a separate comprehensive QSAC review, which occurs every three-years, even though it was completed last spring.

As the newly appointed NESB begins the work of ending state takeover and transitioning to local control, it is important to understand that the existing QSAC law provides the roadmap for getting there. Developing a new process is not necessary, and would likely only delay the return to local control.

So what can NESB do? First, it must press Commissioner Hespe to immediately release the results of the latest comprehensive QSAC review along with a detailed analysis of the ratings. If the governance score is below 80, the commissioner must move quickly, as QSAC directs, to provide whatever technical assistance is needed to ensure the district can boost its score to 80 or above by the end of 2015. Once a score of 80 is achieved, the commissioner can then immediately recommend to the state board of education that governance be returned to local control, and the state board should swiftly approve that finding.

Second, NESB should begin developing the local-control transition plan as required under QSAC in anticipation of achieving a governance score of 80 by year’s end. That plan must address several issues, including a timetable for withdrawal, transition to a district superintendent selected by the Newark Advisory Board, technical assistance from the NJDOE, and plans for the required referendum on whether to have an elected or mayoral-appointed Newark School Board going forward. This plan can be developed and presented to the commissioner by early 2016, and the referendum can be held in May 2016, with the seating of a new, fully empowered school board by next June.

This timeline under the QSAC process is realistic and doable, provided Commissioner Hespe works cooperatively with the NESB and the Newark Advisory Board. With the governor and mayor publicly committed to ending state takeover in Newark, the community demanding democratic control over their schools, and a recent governance score close to the QSAC benchmark, the time has come to release Newark from state control.

The Legislature clearly laid out the process for returning local authority in the QSAC statute, and, in 2009, the law was used successfully to return governing authority to the Jersey City Board of Education. It’s time to apply the same process to Newark in an expedited fashion and end more than two decades of state takeover while strengthening the district’s capacity to provide a high quality public education to all of Newark’s children.