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N.J. First To Attempt Complete Takeover

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Of the five states with laws authorizing state intervention in ailing public school districts, only New Jersey thus far has moved to the brink of a full takeover.

Kentucky, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Texas have also adopted measures that enable state officials to assume control over districts that are perceived as failing for academic and political as well as financial reasons, according to the National Governors' Association. To date, however, those states have used their intervention ability only to take partial control of districts in trouble.

New Mexico has come close to a full takeover, a spokesman for the state superintendent of instruction said. In one case, a district's education programs were so unsatisfactory that local parents asked the state to fire the superintendent and take control of the schools.

But in most cases, taking control has meant installing a state "monitor'' or "master'' to work with local school officials to improve conditions, or to oversee a re-election of local board members by the community.

Legal Justification

In each of the five states, the intervention law's justification resides in constitutional language requiring the state to provide an adequate public education for all children.

The New Jersey constitution's requirement that the state provide a "thorough and efficient'' system of education has been the basis for one of the country's longest-running legal battles over the financing of local school systems.

That school-finance litigation, said Walter J. McCarroll, assistant commissioner of education, forced the New Jersey legislature in the 1970's to define its constitutional language on schooling. The resulting laws, he said, became the basis for the various requirements districts must meet to retain state "certification.''

Schools initially were required to maintain standards on a state "checklist,'' Mr. McCarroll said. When Saul A. Cooperman, the current state commissioner, came into office in 1982, he reworked the checklist into a monitoring process that enabled the state to check on local districts' progress.

The new intervention law, according to Mr. McCarroll, provides "ultimate accountability'' for meeting those requirements.

Critics of the intervention law say it penalizes urban districts that suffer from deeply rooted socioeconomic problems and inadequate funding.

But Mr. McCarroll said the step would only be taken after all other improvement efforts had failed.

"It's only when the local process fails that the state has to fulfill its responsibility,'' he said. "And it's a rather awesome responsibility to take on.''

The New Jersey intervention law also enables state officials to raise local tax rates to augment funding for a district in the event of a takeover. Mr. Cooperman has promised that Jersey City taxes will not be raised.

But he cautioned that the final decision on that matter would be made by the advisory board created by the state, if the takeover process is approved. —LJ

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