State Shifts Regional Achievement Center into Camden School District

John Mooney | August 10, 2015 | Education
NJ says the RACs, criticized by NJEA and other concerned parties, serve highest-need schools

Department of Education Building
The Christie administration has reconfigured its staffing to assist Camden public schools, as part of its general rethinking of how it will support New Jersey’s highest-need districts.

The state has moved a Regional Achievement Center – which was once a countywide or regional office – directly into the Camden public-school system. It will work exclusively with the more-than 20 district schools that are regarded as among the state’s lowest performing, officials said.

The move is part of a new intervention strategy that the state pledged in the accountability plan approved this month by the federal Department of Education. This plan will provide differentiated support to state-run districts and will also extend to priority and focus schools statewide.

The state’s use of its RACs, once the centerpiece of the Christie administration’s accountability system — especially in its highest-needs districts — has been hotly contested.

The move has drawn complaints from school advocates and the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, for failing to follow the state’s original plan for the RACs. At the same time, the Christie administration is under intense pressure to follow through on its pledge to return Newark schools to local control, and questions have arisen as to what role the RACs would play in that process.

The Camden changes were disclosed last week in the third year of the RAC rollout, after what officials conceded was a tumultuous two years of the center working with the district that was taken over by the state in 2013.

In that time, the Camden RAC’s executive director quit, and the NJEA contended the office was doing virtually nothing with the district, despite the commitments approved by the Obama administration as part of its waiver under the No Child Left behind Act.

Assistant state commissioner Evo Popoff last week described it as a “feeling-out how the RACs were supposed to work in a place like Camden,” and he said the department had decided to move the office into the district itself.

That will mean three state-funded experts working directly with the administration-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. “They will largely work through the superintendent’s approach of how to turn around the schools in the district,” Popoff said.

When asked whether this would be the approach in other state-run districts, namely Newark and Paterson, Popoff in each case there would be a “customized” approach.

[related]In Newark, the Education Law Center contested that the state-run district under former superintendent Cami Anderson didn’t involve them at all for the past three years, prompting a formal complaint to the federal Department of Education.

A similar complaint was filed in June by the NJEA and by its parent organization the National Education Association, contending that the state ignored its own plans to use the RACs to help reform Camden.

It specifically cited the closing of schools in the district to reopen as “renaissance schools,” hybrid charter schools run by large school-management organizations with less direct accountability to the district.

“The reality in Camden bears no resemblance to the representations made by the State in its application …” the complaint read. “To the contrary, it exemplifies the type of temporary and unfocused efforts that the State pledged to avoid.”

Nonetheless, in the case of both the NJEA and the ELC complaints, the Obama administration sided with the state Department of Education in its commitment to tighten its focus specifically on its four state-operated districts.

“Because the purpose of [approved] flexibility is to support state reform efforts, we deferred to the state and how it sets up a system of differentiated recognition, accountability and support,” wrote the federal Department of Education.

“Please note that [the department] will continue to monitor the NJDOE’s implementation of that system to help ensure the priority and focus schools in New Jersey receive appropriate interventions and supports.”