Starting in the late 1980s, New Jersey’s takeovers of its most troubled school districts made it a national pioneer in state intervention in local public education.
After more than 20 years of arguably mixed results, the end of these same state takeovers is going out more humbly.
The Murphy administration yesterday announced it would start the transition from state control of Paterson schools after 27 years, citing the gains made in the district and also a new way of thinking that gauges when and how much a state should step in.
The State Board of Education yesterday voted unanimously to start the transition, first in a vote to return the last technical controls to the district and then formalizing what will likely be at least a yearlong process to do so.
The vote was greeted with jubilation, as local Paterson school and political leaders filled the board’s Trenton meeting room and applauded the final vote.
The state’s acting education commissioner, Lamont Repollet, said it was a personal victory to see the district’s growth.
“Understanding that being a former superintendent,” said Repollet, who came to his latest job after leading Asbury Park schools, “I wanted to look at the qualitative data, I wanted to look at student growth, and the systems they had in place.”
“It turned from a school district that is struggling — and I’ve been in that situation — to a school district that is getting out of a rut and now seeing the light of the day,” he said.
An identity crisis
The vote comes as the state is facing a bit of an identity crisis over its takeover history.
In the months before he left office, former Gov. Chris Christie formally paved the way to end state control of Newark schools, opening the district to its first locally selected superintendent in 30 years. The Jersey City school takeover, the nation’s first, saw its last vestiges of oversight eliminated the year before.
But at the same time, Christie in 2013 moved to take over Camden schools, seizing administrative control of the long-troubled district and opening the way for a major expansion of charter schools in the city.
And there is little indication that stewardship will end soon, as the state yesterday announced the district in a lengthy evaluation process had yet to meet any of the complex set of minimum criteria needed for returning to local control.
Last man standing
State school board member Ronald Butcher had a unique perspective on all of it, the one remaining member who served in 1991 when the Paterson takeover was approved.
“I never thought it would take this long to return to local control,” he said yesterday. “And I never thought I’d still be on the board . . . It’s been an up-and-down ride, as all of you know.”
He said the state “never did have an exit plan” for any of its interventions, and it took to 2007 before its latest monitoring system — the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) — was enacted to provide at least a path for the state to phase out the controls.
Butcher, a longtime Rowan University director, said significant strides have been made since then, and he is certain the district is in better hands now.
“Things were not up to expectations at that time,” Butcher said of the climate in 1991. “I think at the time, the rationale for all the takeovers was strong. But the problem was what would the state do that was better.”
Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, had long advocated for local power and said yesterday the vote was a landmark for the community.
“I have been working to this day for 25 years!” she exulted after the vote.
Considering more than test scores
She said the key juncture came as the state turned its attention from absolute test scores to looking more at progress within a district. “They started looking at what kind of growth is happening,” she said. “That was the turning point.”
And what was the ultimate verdict for the takeover? Grant said it was “some good and some bad.”
“A lot of our work was to explain what takeover really meant,” she said. “We had state-appointed superintendents, and some had the interest of Paterson kids in hand and some didn’t.”
“But most of the good and progress we made was not because of takeover, but because of people in the district who cared about Paterson kids,” Grant said.