Op-Ed: Newark’s Long Road to Local Control of Schools — Where Will It Lead?

Paul L. Tractenberg | September 21, 2017 | Opinion
Even as Newark may be poised to resume local control, it's not clear how many schools will be returned and whether state operation actually has built greater local capacity to govern them

Paul Tractenberg
Newark’s long, twisting, and arduous road to local control of its schools may be nearing its end — or maybe not. On September 13, the state Board of Education adopted a resolution to initiate the return to full local control. Under that resolution, the state Department of Education is to collaborate with the Newark Public Schools to develop a “full transition plan,” which will “establish the framework for the return to local control of the district” and the “effective date of the return.”

Of course, this process could result in significant delays and unexpected wrinkles, possibly permitting the already substantial “charterization” of Newark’s schools to continue. Some years ago, Andrew Smarick, a former deputy commissioner of education and close associate of Chris Cerf, the current state superintendent, had identified Newark as an ideal place for an all-charter district. Smarick suggested that state operation would enhance that possibility since the state is the only grantor of charters in New Jersey. Smarick also laid out a blueprint for how Newark could become an all-charter district that bears a striking resemblance to what has happened under state operation recently, especially under state Superintendent Cami Anderson. Since each charter school is technically an independent school district not subject to the jurisdiction of the regular school district in which it is located, the more charter schools Newark has, the less there is to return to local control.

Beginning of the Road

The road Newark is on began more than 20 years ago. In 1995, it joined Jersey City (1989) and Paterson (1991) as state-operated school districts. The fact that these three districts were large and predominantly populated by low-income students of color made them stand out in the context of New Jersey education, where many school districts were small (about two-thirds of them too small to operate full K-12 programs), and racially and socioeconomically homogeneous (meaning predominantly white and middle- to upper-income).

The trio of state-operated districts also stands out because New Jersey is a state where local control is prized to an extraordinary degree and efforts to diminish it are resisted to the maximum. Still, as a matter of constitutional imperative, education is undeniably a state function and the New Jersey Supreme Court has made clear for decades that the state must guarantee all its students, wherever they reside, access to a “thorough and efficient” education. The state can rely on local school districts to serve as its agents, but, if any local district fails to provide that constitutional level of education to its students, the state must intervene. And ultimately, that may require state operation if the local district simply cannot meet its obligations. That is said to have been the case with Newark and the other state-operated districts.

The 1973 court pronouncement, paraphrased above, was the genesis of the original 1987 state takeover law, the first enacted in the country, and the basis for the takeover of Newark, as well as Jersey City and Paterson. All three districts resisted state takeover, Jersey City most strenuously, but the state persisted and state operation ensued.

It might be argued that this has been a nightmare for all concerned. The three large urban districts chafed under state control and speculated about why they virtually alone of New Jersey’s 600 school districts had been deprived of local control (Camden was taken over recently and a number of other districts, such as Lakewood, have state monitors that oversee or control particular district functions.) Early on, the state, especially under Democratic administrations, expressed great frustration about its inability under the 1987 law to return local control in a legally justified and responsible manner. After all, the state education department was never set up or staffed to operate New Jersey’s three largest urban school districts for an extended period. Especially under the Christie administration, however, state operation seems to have been viewed differently — as a vehicle for the state to impose its particular vision of education “reform” on the largest urban districts, a vision strongly criticized by some as “neoliberal.”

More than a stopgap measure

By late 2000, state Commissioner of Education David Hespe decided something had to be done. No one had imagined that state takeover would be more than an emergency stopgap measure, but by 2000 Jersey City already had been under state operation for more than a decade, Paterson for nearly as long, and even Newark was up to five years and counting. Moreover, none of the three seemed anywhere near meeting the 1987 statute’s vague and unrealistic standards for reestablishing local control.

That was when I became a fellow traveler (so to speak) on Newark’s long road to local control. The Rutgers-Newark Institute on Education Law and Policy (IELP), an applied research and policy center that I had founded in September 2000, entered into a major contract with the state education department to do a study of state takeover and to recommend how it could be improved, with a particular emphasis on reestablishing local control. The study was launched on January 2, 2001 and resulted in two publications: a June 15, 2001 preliminary report and a May 2002 final report titled “Developing a Plan for Reestablishing Local Control in the State-Operated School Districts.”

Both reports were critical of the 1987 state takeover law and how the state had implemented it. In particular, they criticized the lack of clear and achievable standards for reestablishing local control and the absence of an emphasis on building local capacity during state operation. By the time the final report was issued, William Librera had become commissioner and he seized on the recommendations to advance a detailed action plan, which included major proposed amendments to the 1987 takeover law. Librera also created an advisory committee, on which my Rutgers colleague Alan Sadovnik and I served. The committee submitted its report in March 2003, and thereafter a legislative bill was drafted to replace the 1987 law as part of a comprehensive assessment scheme for the entire state education system. Awkwardly known as QSAC (Quality Single Assessment Continuum), it became law in September 2005 and implementing regulations were adopted in February 2007.

In the interim, IELP issued two additional reports: a 2006 evaluation of a pilot program the department conducted of QSAC implementation and a May 2007 “QSAC Guide for School Officials and the Public.” Neither gave QSAC and its implementation glowing praise. The problems related primarily to the state’s failure to give adequate attention to building local capacity during state operation, a major problem pre-QSAC, and to a questionable metric for scoring district progress. Although the statute paid lip service to the former, neither it nor the department’s regulations and procedures made building local capacity a central focus of state operation as IELP had urged repeatedly.

Prophetic concerns

Those concerns were prophetic — state operation of the three districts has remained largely in place for an additional decade. Even now, as first Jersey City and now Newark are poised to resume local control of their schools, it is not clear whether that is because they have demonstrated substantially enhanced local capacity to do so. To a significant degree, any improvements in the districts may be attributable to the state superintendent and his or her team. After all, under QSAC, the state superintendent has functioned as both superintendent and local school board rolled into one with broad powers over the state-operated district. The locally elected advisory board has only limited authority as particular educational functions are returned, piece-by-piece, to the local district.

Indeed, one of the curiosities of state operation under QSAC is that the worse the district has done, the more urgently the state has argued for state operation to continue; the better the district has done under state operation, the greater the likelihood of local control being reestablished. To a large degree, therefore, district performance may be more a function of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of state operation than it is of enhanced local capacity.

As someone who not only has traveled the long state operation road with the Newark school district, but also has a far longer and more personal history with that district (a Newark-born, raised, and public-school-educated person, and an early advocate for equalized urban education funding via Abbott v. Burke and its predecessor case Robinson v. Cahill), this is very personal, as well as professional, stuff for me.

My profound hope is that reestablishing local control in Newark and the other state-operated districts will demonstrate that somehow a still flawed state system has produced a positive outcome for the students. Of course, it also could demonstrate that state operation wasn’t necessary in the first place because the local community, with all its problems, may have had greater capacity to run its own schools than state-selected and empowered administrators from elsewhere. In Newark, the only home-grown state superintendent was Marion Bolden and her deep commitment to the local community meant, unsurprisingly, that she was regularly at odds with the state overseers.