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Education Commissioner Cerf Avoids Talk of State Control of Newark Schools

10-2-12

By David Cruz
NJ Today

Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf continues to avoid questions about the state’s role in running school districts. Today he was in Newark, the state’s largest district, which has been under state control for almost 17 years. But he slipped out a side door in order to avoid the media and their questions about when or how the local school board might get back some control. He left it to Newark School’s Superintendent Cami Anderson to tackle the question, which she promptly avoided.

“Regardless of where the ultimate decisions lie, we all have to work together in pursuit of that goal of college readiness for our kids, and I frankly approach it with the same fervor, in other words, working with all the stakeholders, right now as I would under any circumstance,” said Anderson. “I think every stakeholder has to be involved for us to get to where we want to go.”

The state has a scoring system in place called the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC), which is supposed to measure progress in state–controlled districts. Last year, Newark showed sufficient advancement in a number of QSAC areas, which should have automatically triggered the return of some control.

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Shavar Jeffries is a former president and current member of the Newark school advisory board. “We worked very hard as a board in 2010-2011 when I was board president to position the district for the return of local control, and we surpassed the benchmark for the first time in the district’s history and the law seemed to be pretty clear that that’s supposed to trigger the process for local control, but that didn’t happen,” said Jeffries.

Because the commissioner ruled that Newark schools were performing too poorly to be run locally and essentially vetoed the move, prompting the advisory board — along with the Education Law Center and the Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools — to sue, claiming Cerf had not followed the statute. The first briefs in the case were filed this week but Assemblyman Albert Coutinho says he hopes cooler heads prevail and that both sides can find a way to avoid litigation in favor of cooperation.

“The QSAC law, which allows for the takeover in the first place is very clear that Newark should have partial local control back,” said Coutinho. “We have to be extremely clear that the state is always going to have a major role in what goes on here in Newark for the very fact that a large percentage of the money that funds these schools is from the state.”

The budget here is around $1 billion — that’s between $17,000 and $20,000 a year, per student, depending on who you talk to. That’s a lot of money being used to fund a reform agenda, led by Anderson, which has some locals calling for more direct representation for their dollars.

“I believe the only way to sustain education reform is through the parents and community,” said Jeffries. “Our parents are the only permanent constituency our kids have. I deeply and strongly believe in bold and aggressive education reform. We can’t tolerate a status quo that has failed our children for many decades with a 50 percent graduation rate. However, for me the only way to do that is through the parents and the people of Newark.”

Mayor Cory Booker also attempted to avoid any discussion of the pending suit or state control of the schools. “I don’t know where the politics are right now because frankly I’m not focused on the politics,” he said. “I’m focused on what’s going on to transform our schools into high-performing institutions. Frankly I haven’t focused on the politics as much this year as I have in past years.”

The artful dodging on the part of the superintendent and others shows just how controversial the issue of state control is. The courts may yet decide the issue but education officials say the important thing is for everyone to stay focused on getting better results for kids.