Federal Opinion

Powerful Coalition Opposes NCLB Waivers in New Jersey

By Anthony Cody — October 30, 2012 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A remarkable coalition of individuals and organizations, many of them with deep roots in the African American and Latino communities, is calling upon the Department of Education to abandon plans to implement new policies associated with NCLB waivers in the state of New Jersey.

In the past, some leaders in the African American and Latino communities have supported NCLB, believing it would result in improved outcomes for students. The Department of Education has relied on this support to press its case that closing schools on the basis of test scores is in the interest of students. This letter reveals a different stance on the part of these leaders.

Rosie Grant, Program Director at the Paterson Education Fund, explained their stance in a press release issued two weeks ago:

We understand that the waivers were an effort to free states from the impossible targets set by NCLB. Unfortunately, here in New Jersey, it is clear that the NCLB waiver is being used by the NJDOE to apply measures that are much more damaging than NCLB would have been, particularly for low-income Black and Latino children.

Dozens of civil rights and community organizations joined Ms. Grant in signing a letter that explained their concerns. Here is the letter, complete with the latest list of signatures.

Dear Secretary Duncan,

We are writing to express our grave concerns about the negative impact of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver on New Jersey’s most vulnerable children.

We understand that the waivers were an effort to return more control to the states to improve educational opportunities and outcomes. Unfortunately, here in New Jersey, it is quite clear that the NCLB waiver is being used to apply measures that are more damaging than NCLB would have been, particularly to low-income Black and Latino children.

Below, we detail our most pressing concerns with the program the State is implementing under the waiver: 1) introduction of a punitive accountability system that disproportionately impacts school districts populated by low-income children of color while rewarding selective schools and those populated by wealthier, majority white students; and 2) a process of State intervention that excludes low-income communities of color from substantive input in the planning or implementation of the proposed interventions.

To replace the NCLB framework, the State has adopted a new classification system that will reinforce racial and economic segregation and inequity in New Jersey’s public schools. The classification system uses state standardized tests, graduation rates, and gaps in achievement, to target a group of 75 “Priority” schools and 183 “Focus” schools for dramatic State-mandated intervention, including possible closings and conversions to charter schools. These Priority and Focus Schools serve overwhelmingly Black and Latino, very poor communities, and educate many students who do not speak English as a first language. The Priority schools are concentrated in some of the most distressed communities in the state and have a staggering 24% student mobility rate.

In contrast, the State has classified a group of 122 schools as “Reward” schools, based on high achievement or high levels of growth on state tests. These schools, which are targeted to receive financial bonuses, are located in the highest wealth districts in the state, serve a small percentage of Black and Latino students, have low poverty rates, few English language learners, and little student mobility. Many of these schools are magnet high schools and vocational schools, with highly selective admissions.

The blatant economic and racial inequity built into this classification system harks back to the days when such segregation and inequity were policy objectives for our State.

To accompany the new school classification system, the NJDOE is creating an infrastructure of 5 to 7 Regional Achievement Centers (RACs). The RACs, which are being partially funded by grants from private foundations, will have authority to take over the management of Priority and Focus schools, completely bypassing duly elected or appointed local school boards and district administrations.
The NJDOE is giving the targeted schools two years to reach arbitrary new achievement levels or face sanctions. It is highly improbable that the targeted schools will achieve the increased standards that the state is requiring, particularly as the State is simultaneously imposing severe funding cuts on these same school districts. Should they fail to achieve the increased standards, these schools will be subject to closure or the imposition of private management, not only without substantial community input, but in direct opposition to the wishes of the primarily low-income Black and Latino host communities.

In fact, this lack of participation or engagement of the host communities is evident in all aspects of the NJDOE’s implementation of the waiver proposal, underscoring NJDOE Commissioner Cerf’s expressed belief that fixing schools “isn’t about consensus and collaboration.” Not only have those residents whose children attend the targeted schools been left out of the planning and decision-making process, but so have the local boards of education, and the district administrations. Moreover NJ’s entire waiver plan was adopted with minimal opportunity for public input, no legislative review and without the required regulatory rule-making process mandated by NJ’s Administrative Procedure Act.

The potential end result of NJDOE’s implementation of the waiver, with its lack of transparency, its punitive attack on high-poverty school districts, and its insidious disenfranchisement of communities of color, is the undermining and possible destruction of urban public education, including the systematic dismantling of any semblance of democratic governance.

We also want to highlight the threat posed by the recent granting of an additional Title I waiver to the NJDOE, which relaxes requirements that federal Title I funding be used for its prescribed purpose of addressing the negative effects of poverty on academic performance. Governor Christie has proposed redirecting some Title I funds among schools without regard to the degree of poverty, an explicit departure from federal Title I requirements. This diversion of funding flies in the face of the Title I program’s objectives and would further hinder our ability to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students.

We ask that the US Department of Education immediately suspend its No Child Left Behind and Title I waiver provisions in New Jersey until there is a thorough review of the State’s implementation scheme, especially as it pertains to disparate racial and economic impact and lack of community input.

Time is of the essence. The RACs are due to come on-line this fall and the clock has begun ticking for targeted schools in low-income communities of color.

Respectfully yours,

Reverend Toby Sanders, President, Trenton Board of Education
Dr. Jonathan Hodges, Member and former President, Paterson Board of Education
Rosie Grant, Program Director, Paterson Education Fund
Julia Sass Rubin, Spokesperson, Save Our Schools NJ and Associate Professor of Policy, Rutgers
Frank Argote-Freyre, President, Latino Action Network
William Colon, President, The Latino Institute
Laverne Harvey, President, Camden Education Association
David Sciarra, Executive Director, Education Law Center
Deborah Sagner, Sagner Family Foundation
Junius Williams, Director, Abbott Leadership Institute
Kathleen Witcher, President, Irvington NAACP
Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, Executive Director, New Jersey Citizen Action
Katie Strom, a Founding Member of NJ Teacher Activists Group (NJ TAG)
Terry Moore, Save Our Schools March, NJ Information Coordinator
Donna M. Chiera, President, American Federation of Teachers NJ
Sharon Smith, Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSE)
Michelle Fine, Professor of Psychology, City University of New York
Ras Baraka, Newark Southward Councilman
Rev. Dr. Ken J. Gordon Jr., President, Southern Burlington County NAACP and Willingboro Councilman
Leah Owens, Chairperson, Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus
Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, Chairperson, Newark Public Schools Advisory Board
Arnold Williams, Founder and Chairperson, League of Black and Latino Voters
Jose Delgado, Community Activist and former Camden BOE member
Teresa Vivar, Executive Director, LAZOS America Unida
Trina Scordo, Executive Director, New Jersey Communities United
Gordon MacInnes, Former Assistant Commissioner for Abbott Implementation and NJ State Senator
Donna Jackson, President and Founder, United Parent Network
Naomi Johnson-Lafleur, President, Trenton Education Association
Marcia Marley, President, BlueWaveNJ
Irene Sterling, President, Paterson Education Fund
Elease Evans, Chairwoman, New Jersey Black Issues Convention
Geraldine Carroll, President, Great Schools of New Jersey
Charles Wowkanech, President, New Jersey State AFL-CIO
Mary G. Bennett, Retired High School Principal, Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools
Reverend Darrell L. Armstrong, Founder, Shiloh CDC, Trenton
Paul Tractenberg, Professor of Law, Rutgers & Co-Director, Institute on Education Law and Policy
Wilhelmina Holder, President, and Laura Baker, Board Member, Newark Secondary Parents Council
Willie Rowe, Vice Chair, Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools
Edward Barocas, Acting Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey
Kevin Walsh, Associate Director, Fair Share Housing Center
Dierdre Glenn Paul, President, African American Caucus of Montclair State University
Dr. Tamara Spencer, Literacy Graduate Program Coordinator, ECELE, Montclair State University
Sterling Waterman, Vice President, Jersey City Board of Education
Debra Jennings, Executive Co-Director, Statewide Parent Advocacy Network
James E. Harris, President, New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP
Sharon Krengel, Facilitator, Our Children/Our Schools Coalition
Lorenzo Richardson, President of Concerned Citizens Coalition
Monique K. Andrews, President of NJ Vocal Minority
Bruce S. Morgan, President, New Brunswick Area Branch NAACP

What do you think of this letter? Will this cause the Department of Education and state of New Jersey think again?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.