‘Déjà Vu All Over Again’ in New Jersey

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — June 03, 2013 3 min read
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If you have been reading Education Week for a long time, you might have a sense of déjà vu from this week’s issue. My article this week on the state takeover of the Camden school district in New Jersey was in almost exactly the same spot of the print edition as an article on state takeover of the Jersey City schools—from 25 years ago.

That long history is a theme of the article. When Governor Chris Christie and Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf announced earlier this spring that the state was taking over the school district in Camden, the obvious question seemed to be: How will this be any different than what’s happened in Newark, or Jersey City, or in Paterson, where the state has had control for years and where academic achievement has still not improved much?

One major difference, according to Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University, may be the fact that Camden’s mayorally appointed school board chose not to contest the takeover. This story from 1994 about Newark gives you a picture of how hostile the changing of the guard can be: State education officials apparently handcuffed at least one local school official and staged a late-night raid to take documents from the district. The more low-key state takeover in Camden is still not finalized—the state board of education needs to approve it early this month. But it’s likely to go through.

Besides the diminished hostility at the onset, there seems to have be a slightly different approach to running a district in this administration.

My conversations with current and former state administrators hint that the state did not take a very hands-on role in its early years in New Jersey. Gordon MacInnes, who was an assistant commissioner in the department of education and a Democratic state senator in New Jersey, said that it’s often a challenge for a state to begin running a district, as the people who work at the state level don’t necessarily have the skills and expertise it takes to run a school district. He said that when he arrived at his office, which was responsible for implementing programs in urban school districts and overseeing the takeover districts, in 2002, it was staffed by two “policy types” and two secretaries. “The state was overseeing three districts with two people,” he said.

But, as the new takeover indicates, the current Education Commissioner Chris Cerf seems to have taken a more hands-on approach, at least in Newark, where high-profile superintendent Cami Anderson and the commissioner are in close contact. Justin Barra, the chief policy officer in the state, said some of the work that’s been happening in Newark is evidence that positive changes are on their way, even if they’re not showing up in test scores yet. Barra said that the state would aim to help build capacity for running the district at the local level. The state also authorizes charter schools in New Jersey, and both Camden and Newark are the site of several charter schools, which Barra said were among the most promising in the nation, according to some research.

But Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the school board president in Newark, said that the close relationship between the state and the superintendent meant that the board itself was sometimes shut out. The expansion of the charter sector is also a cause for concern for the Newark board, she said, as enrollment in the traditional district has been dropping in recent years.

In Paterson, the relationship between the school board and the superintendent is more amicable, said Christopher Irving, the president of that district’s board. But he said that the board there is still chafing under the state’s authority. “We’re directly affected by decisions that get made. The bureaucrats don’t have to live in this town,” he said. “After 20 years, you can’t find nine competent people to run a school district?”

But despite the state’s iffy track record, Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said that things in Camden have been so bad for so long that it’s clear that something needs to change. “There’s just too many kids who are going to fall between the cracks unless some action is taken,” he said. “It’s not the fault of the local board—but it’s just that that structure can’t meet the challenges.”

Whatever the feeling is on state takeovers, one can only hope that something positive will happen in Camden’s schools. It will be interesting how the state proposes to improve schools in this long-suffering district.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.