Nearly 25 years after New Jersey first took control of a troubled school district, a proposed state takeover of the Camden public schools sheds a critical spotlight on that state’s long—and still mostly unsuccessful—record of trying to right struggling districts through such intervention.
New Jersey enacted the nation’s first state-takeover law in 1987, and 28 states have since followed suit, according to Kenneth Wong, a professor of urban education at Brown University.
The state began running the public schools in Jersey City in 1989; in Paterson in 1991; and in Newark, the state’s largest district, in 1995. None of those districts is completely free of state control yet, and lawsuits from school boards in Paterson and Newark contend the state has not followed procedures for relinquishing control.
Though the situation is different in each district, it is widely agreed that the academic performance in the state-run districts has not improved notably after years of state control.
“There’s a policy question here,” for New Jersey and other states experimenting with takeovers, said Mr. Wong. “Often the takeovers produce improvement in test scores immediately, and then it levels off. The question is: Why do they get stuck?”
‘Immoral’ Not to Act?
The move for a takeover of the Camden system, announced in March by Gov. Chris Christie and education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, cites what state leaders argue is an obligation to act.
Although New Jersey was the first of dozens of states to enact a state takeover law in 1987, it has yet to completely relinquish control of a school district.
- Student Enrollment: 28,000
- State Assumed Control: 1989
- Status: District is now under partial state control. A locally elected board is responsible for governance and finance. The state is responsible for curriculum, operations, and personnel. A state-appointed “highly qualified professional” oversees the district, but a superintendent runs it day-to-day.
- Student Enrollment: 29,000
- State Assumed Control: 1991
- Status: State is responsible for all district functions. A locally elected board serves an advisory role.
- Student Enrollment: 38,000
- State Assumed Control: 1995
- Status: State is responsible for all district functions except operations. A locally elected board serves an advisory role.
- Student Enrollment: 13,700
- State Assumed Control: 2013
- Status: State would assume responsibilities for all district functions in late June, pending state board approval.
SOURCES: New Jersey Department of Education; Education Week
Mr. Christie, a Republican, said that the dire situation in the school system means that not taking over the district would be “immoral.” Camden is home to 20 of the lowest-performing schools in the state, and it has an on-time high school graduation rate under 50 percent.
The district has also been plagued by budget problems: The current Camden school board just laid off 200 employees.
“According to our state constitution, the state has the ultimate responsibility to ensure a thorough and efficient education, and must step in if a district does not meet its obligation,” said Justin Barra, the chief policy and external- affairs officer at the state education department.
The department says its plans for Camden and its approach to running the state-controlled districts in general will be more effective than those of past administrations. “It’s not just about who is in charge—it’s about what you do with that power,” Mr. Barra said.
But community members in other districts run by the state are skeptical of its role in their own districts and its ability to improve the Camden schools.
“I’m concerned that the citizens of Camden not be fooled into thinking the state will do a better job with their schools than they can do if they get organized, and stay organized and committed to improving their schools,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the president of the school board in Newark.
Board members from all three state-run districts met together last month to discuss plans to regain local control of their schools.
Support in Camden
In April, the mayorally appointed school board in Camden voted not to challenge the takeover. The Camden board will not be disbanded, as the boards in Paterson, Newark, and Jersey City initially were, but will remain intact in an advisory role, under the state’s takeover plan.
That lack of local board opposition to state control is unusual nationally, said Mr. Wong. “This may be a new model of state takeover,” he said; the question is, “can [the state] then leverage the support from the local level to actually make this work?”
The takeover proposal for Camden goes to the state board of education this week, and if it is approved, the state will take the reins late this month. Meanwhile, a search for a new superintendent is ongoing, Mr. Barra said.
A state-run Regional Achievement Center already oversees some particularly low-performing schools in the district, and a state monitor oversees some spending decisions.
The state also authorizes charter schools, including nine in Camden. The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, for instance, is slated to begin running new schools serving 2,800 Camden students beginning with the 2014-15 school year.
A full state takeover could pave the way for bigger changes in Camden, although the state has not yet laid out any clear plan publicly.
Some have suggested that Camden could become an all-charter or radically restructured district.
“Camden is quite small, and there are some really high-quality operators in New Jersey,” said Neerav Kingsland, the director of New Schools for New Orleans, which supports and invests in charter schools in that city.
But Camden presents particular challenges, too, said Gordon MacInnes, the president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonprofit policy-research organization in Trenton.
“You have one of the poorest and most violent cities in the United States. ... That should be reflected in your takeover,” he said. “And you ought to acknowledge—we didn’t do a great job in the other three, and this is a much harder, steeper, slipperier slope.”
The state education department is not traditionally made up of people who have experience running districts, said Mr. MacInnes, who was an assistant education commissioner for urban education programs from 2002 until 2007, under Democratic governors.
Taking over a district means “the state takes on a big burden it is not equipped to deal with,” he said.
But, “in the Christie administration, they’ve pushed that beyond just the employment of the superintendent,” Mr. MacInnes said. “They have a more agenda-driven partnership between the commissioner and superintendent than was true in any of the previous administrations.”
Paul L. Tractenberg, the founder of the Education Law Center, the public-interest law firm that filed Newark’s suit against the state, and a law professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark, agreed. He said that while previous governors’ administrations had been eager to return districts to local control, now “not only isn’t there a desire to re-establish local control, there’s a desire to retain state operation in order to implement or experiment with a certain education reform agenda.”
Mr. Barra said the state education agency’s approach would be more effective than those of past administrations “because of this administration’s track record.”
He cited Newark, which has brought in 30 new principals and implemented a new teacher contract this year, as a place where the efforts of Cami Anderson, the newest state-appointed superintendent, are showing promise.
Renee Harper, a spokeswoman for the Newark schools, said: “The state has done no better than the locals did. But we’ve made huge gains in creating the conditions for success.”
The state’s record in Newark is not without detractors, however. This spring, Newark’s school board voted to rename itself as a full board, rather than an advisory board, and voted no confidence in Superintendent Anderson.
Christopher Irving, the president of the Paterson school board, said that with all the attention paid to Newark, issues in the Paterson system often seemed to slip beneath the state’s radar.
“The state doesn’t have the capacity to govern [districts] in the three cities, and they’re trying to expand to four,” he said.
As in other states where the state has taken control of districts, including Michigan, there are concerns that the targeted districts are predominantly minority.
“There are low-performing districts that aren’t predominantly black and brown,” Mr. Irving said, suggesting the apparent disparity naturally raises questions.
The process of returning New Jersey districts to local control has, likewise, been contentious.
Mr. Tractenberg said the original takeover law “hadn’t especially contemplated how to get out.” Districts were initially supposed to return to local control once they were certified by a state process, he said.
A 2007 law allowed state-run districts to regain control of areas in which they have scored at least an 80 on a state accountability scale and demonstrated that their growth is “sustainable.”
The Jersey City system has regained control of governance and fiscal matters through those provisions, and Newark’s board now controls operations in its district.
Both Newark and Jersey City have scored above 80 in some categories that have not yet been reassigned to the local school boards. What’s more, it can be unclear what having control of, for instance, operations but not personnel actually looks like, said the board presidents.
In Jersey City, the local board has regained governance, and it recently selected Marcia V. Lyles to be the district superintendent. But even there, said board President Suzanne T. Mack, it’s been unclear who controls what and when the state’s role would shift.
Whether or not the local authorities regain governance, the state is still responsible for much of the budget in the takeover districts.
In Jersey City, for instance, “we have a $660 million budget—$540 million comes from the state,” Ms. Mack said. “When we say, do we want the state to leave, we don’t want them to leave and take our money.
“It should be, in a perfect world, a partnership between state, city, and school board.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2013 edition of Education Week as N.J. Preparing to Seize Control of Fourth District