Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Whose Schools?

In 1995 when the citizens of Newark lost control of our public school system to the State of New Jersey it was the beginning of a dark era in the city. Now, 12 years later, there is serious discussion about how and when the schools will return to local control.

It is worth remembering a little about the conditions that existed before takeover as we work out how to move to local control. At that time, the leadership at the Board was incompetent and openly arrogant. They treated school resources as though they were the private preserve of Board members and administrators. In fact, we believe the state would never have taken over the schools had the existing leadership simply stepped aside. But the Board and administration were thoroughly united in their recalcitrance. It mattered little to them that students were failing in increasing numbers each year. Their agenda was to control politics, power and money. The school system was their vehicle.

And the state’s motivation was nowhere near pure. While it is difficult to assess their true level of concern, we are confident that the intellectual abuse of poor Newark schoolchildren had far less to do with the state’s action than the money that could be rerouted through control of contracts for goods and services. Failing schools were not the primary concern of the state—it was the spoils of politics. The state’s school takeover action can best be described as a naked power grab. Slow and no progress in many key areas over the past 12 years is clear evidence that the State of New Jersey was ill equipped to operate a school district. The state’s own record in Jersey City and Paterson should have been enough for them to pass on Newark. Trenton should never be in the business of running school districts.

We believe there was and is still a better way for school districts to transition to and from state control. As bad a job as they have done, the state must retain the ability to takeover school districts that reach a certain level of deficiency. But actual state takeover should always be an absolute last resort. There is an interim step that could be effective and efficient.

In 1983 we recommended to the late 29th district Assemblyman Eugene Thompson the creation of a hybrid (Type III) school district. The nine member school board would consist of five elected members, two appointed by the state and two appointed by the city. Under this regime, all parties with a legitimate interest in the functioning of schools and education of students would be involved. The Type III district would operate with an approved remedial plan for a specific period of time. If the remedial plan is successfully implemented, a school district would not have to be taken over or, in the event it has already been taken over, it could return to local control. A remedial plan with specific goals and timetables would be a far better measure of capability than a self-evaluation, which opens the door to subjectivity.

If the process to return seized school districts to local control is careless, they could easily return to the state from which they were supposedly rescued. No one wants that but in the haste to eliminate what has become both a burden and an embarrassment, a bad situation could easily be made worse.

A Type III school district offers the state an opportunity for soft intervention into troubled school districts without taking on responsibility which it clearly cannot handle. It offers the community a measure of comfort knowing that the majority of the interim governing body will be elected democratically. It affords state and municipal officials direct oversight and input through their appointed representatives. Everybody is in. The citizens and taxpayers get three levels of representation. We can’t think of a better scenario for extracting accountability from a most stubborn bureaucracy. It gives us our best chance to represent students.

For schools to work well, a number of teaching and learning issues need to be addressed to say nothing of discipline and security matters. But effective governance can go a long way towards driving positive outcomes in these areas. A fresh look at governance options is more than warranted after the obvious debacle of 12 years of state control.

The idea of a Type III school district is nearly 25 years old but we think it should be revisited. Assemblyman Thompson initiated the legislative process on the concept. It got hobbled along the way. We suggest dusting it off and tweaking it to fit our current circumstances.

In addition to the many complex educational issues that need be addressed, our public school system has a huge budget which will always be a temptation to those who see jobs and contracts as their first priority. The pre-takeover Board and the State of New Jersey operated a patronage mill on the backs of a vulnerable public. Under both systems, public policy and the public purse received short shrift. A repeat performance must be avoided at all cost. We believe a Type III transition to local control could be a prudent step that offers essential safeguards and an ample monitoring period to work out the kinks.

September 5, 2007

No comments: