N.J. Plans To End Takeover in Jersey City

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A decade after seizing control of the Jersey City schools because of abysmal test scores and financial and political turmoil, New Jersey state officials unveiled a plan last week for returning the district to local control.

David C. Hespe

Despite mixed reports on progress since the 1989 takeover under the state's pioneering "academic bankruptcy" law, Commissioner of Education David C. Hespe said the 32,000-student district had shown enough improvement to warrant a transfer back to the local school board. Since the takeover--the first of its kind in the country--the nine-member, locally elected panel has existed merely as an advisory body to the state-appointed superintendent.

"In the past 10 years, the district has shown marked improvement in many areas, including academics," and especially in budgetary and management matters, Mr. Hespe said last week.

Though Jersey City has made some gains, "test scores still fall short of what we want them to be, but our focus has been on improvement," he said. "And by bringing the community into schools, I think we'll see greater gains in student performance."

The proposal requires approval by both the state board of education and the legislature. If approved, it could allow the Jersey City school board to choose its own superintendent within the next two years, Mr. Hespe said.

Following New Jersey's example, many states have adopted takeovers, or the threat of such intervention, as a tool to prod failing districts into action. Twenty-three states have legislation allowing them to take control of low-performing districts, and about 11 states have made good on their promise to do so, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Yet in recent years, states have shown less willingness to step in and run districts from afar, and have increasingly favored alternatives such as transferring control of troubled systems to local mayors.

"One thing I think we've learned from the takeovers in Jersey City and elsewhere is that it's much easier to deal with central-office and management problems than to bring about change school by school and classroom by classroom," said David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the based Education Law Center, an advocacy organization in Newark, N.J., that spearheaded a long-running school finance lawsuit against the state.

A Mixed Bag

Before the takeover, Jersey City's schools were plagued by "deep-rooted and endemic" academic troubles, political patronage and corruption, and financial mismanagement, a judge wrote in a 1989 ruling that paved the way for the state to step in. ("Anatomy of a Takeover," March 2, 1994.)

Similar problems led New Jersey to take control of the Paterson schools in 1991 and the Newark schools in 1995. Those two districts are not included in the proposal Mr. Hespe announced last week.

While state officials claim across-the-board improvement in Jersey City since the takeover, outside observers report mixed results. Most acknowledge that management and business practices have been streamlined, crumbling schools have been shored up, and successful programs for magnet schools, preschool and kindergarten, and after-school activities have been expanded.

"Our finances are in order, we have a new accountability system in place, buildings are in better shape, and we've won all sorts of awards and gotten grants," said Joanne P. Kenny, an adviser to the state-appointed superintendent, Richard A. DiPatri, and a former Jersey City teacher. "Would this happen if the state didn't take over? I'd have to say maybe not."

But, as in state takeovers elsewhere, improving academic performance in Jersey City has proved to be a tougher challenge.

"Are operations more effective under the state? Absolutely," Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler said last week. He noted that the district's operating budget has climbed from $180 million in 1989 to $380 million this year. But, he added, "we've only seen a marginal improvement in test scores, and more than half of our kids are still dropping out of school." The district reports a 10 percent dropout rate.

The Republican mayor said more radical changes are needed. "Throwing kids who come in with all the disadvantages of the world into a bureaucratically rigid system does nothing to help them," Mr. Schundler said. "We need a revolution in school governance" in the form of charter schools and school vouchers, he said.

Hard To Evaluate

Thomas J. Favia, the president of the Jersey City Education Association, a National Education Association affiliate, said the "marginal successes and political costs" of the takeover prove that "you can't micromanage a school district from Trenton."

"When you take districts as large as ours, with as many disadvantaged students, you need to live here to understand its problems," he added. Still others say that with virtually no comprehensive, independent assessment of the state's decade-long management of the district, there is no fair way to gauge its successes or failures.

"What's so tragic here is not the takeover but the fact that in 10 years we know very little about what happened, what works, and what didn't work," Mr. Sciarra said. "All you're left with are anecdotes from different interest groups."

Vol. 18, Issue 39, Pages 1, 11

Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as N.J. Plans To End Takeover in Jersey City
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