Local Control of Camden Schools Not on a Fast Track

John Mooney | September 18, 2017 | Education
Mayor, superintendent say schools have improved since state took over the district but obstacles to autonomy remain

Schoolkids Camden
Just days after the Christie administration moved to end state control of Newark public schools, the purpose — if not the mood — was altogether different in Camden on Friday.

Gov. Chris Christie returned to the Camden schools for a rousing speech that appeared aimed at cementing his place in a district that he arguably transformed more than any in his eight years in office.

In 2012, the governor signed the Urban Hope Act that brought a wave of charter schools to Camden which now serve two-thirds of the city’s public schoolchildren. In 2013, Christie moved to take over the rest of the district — the fourth such takeover for New Jersey — and named its first state-appointed superintendent.

And while the state has been moving away from its interventions of 20-plus years ago — including taking the first steps to ceding control in Newark last week — there appeared few doubts on Friday that the younger takeover of Camden schools still has a way to go.

To be sure, Christie played up the progress, saying that graduation rates had markedly improved in district schools, and student performance in some schools exceeded statewide averages.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard brought in fiscal controls, Christie said, and worked with residents to make the schools safer and more responsive.

District ‘is in far better shape’

But through all the celebration, Christie also said there remained wide gaps between district schools and their peers among charter schools and the hybrid “renaissance schools” brought about by the Urban Hope Act. In fact, the school he visited Friday — a renovated century-old building now run by the KIPP charter organization — is one such renaissance school.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, left, and Mayor Dana Redd concede that local control of the district is some way off.
Rouhanifard conceded after the governor’s 90-minute appearance that even with the progress, steep challenges remain that make any talk of ending the takeover premature. “You’re seeing a rising tide that is lifting all boats,” Rouhanifard said. “All of our schools are improving. . . What’s important to focus in on is that the district today is in far better shape than four years ago.”

Asked when the local community might regain control — starting with specific oversight of areas like personnel and operations, and ultimately appointing its own superintendent — the current superintendent didn’t put a date on it.

“There should be a conversation about how to empower the community to drive these changes forward,” Rouhanifard said. “What you see today is a really strong partnership with our school board and mayor, and in the short run, in the next few years, there should be a more direct plan to provide that formal authority.”

Camden Mayor Dana Redd, a Democrat who sided with Christie in actively supporting the takeover, said she too wasn’t sure the city was yet ready to regain control of the schools. She pointed out that with Christie leaving office at the end of the year — as will she — that will be a task for the next governor and mayor.

‘We are not there yet’

“I think there will be a lot of discussion,” she said in an interview. “I think it is important to make sure we have the capacity and local leadership to make sure that the progress we are beginning to see continues.”

When asked whether the city was there yet, she said: “We are making significant progress. We are not there yet, and everyone knows this is more like a marathon and will happen gradually.”

The next step for the district is continued monitoring under the state’s oversight system, which grades the district’s capacity in five key areas, including fiscal controls and local governance. The last such report in late 2015 found the district far short of the required 80 percent in all five areas, with instructional programs at just 11 percent compliance and personnel at 20 percent.

As for district operations are concerned, Rouhanifard said there has been progress, but likely not enough yet: “We have a lot of work we have to do still, on the curriculum and personnel side of things,” he said. But he also said he hopes that the charter and renaissance schools join the discussion of local control, including maybe a strengthening of the city’s role in overseeing and regulating those schools. (Now, the state oversees charter and renaissance schools.)

“The majority of our kids are now in the charter and renaissance schools,” Rouhanifard said. “That is an interesting phenomena at this point, where more than half of our kids are in a system regulated by Trenton. It would be an interesting conversation to have whether even authorizing powers could be more local.”