EDUCATION

Calls for State to Return Local Control to Newark, Jersey City and Paterson

By David Cruz
NJ Today

It was a rare joint meeting of the Paterson and Newark advisory school boards, a public session ostensibly called to update the two communities on the status of state control, but actually part of an effort to rally support to kick the state out.

“The state operation, what I call an experiment, has not worked,” said Paterson Advisory School Board President Christopher Irving. “It has proven to be inefficient. It has proven to be ineffective, and so to try the same method over and over again is just insanity.”

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The state’s three largest school systems — Jersey City reps had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t join the event — have been under state control for decades. Paterson was taken over in 1989, Jersey City in 1991 and Newark in 1995. For educational leaders, who note that the systems have continued an overall decline under state control, the sense is that the state is less interested in improving education and more interested in controlling the combined $2 billion represented by the system’s budgets. Newark’s share of that is $800 million.

“It’s an easy way to get $800 million — almost a billion dollars — worth of resources in this school system, to divvy up and give up to whoever they want to give it to,” said Newark Councilman Ras Baraka, who is also principal of Central High School. “This is an opportunity for them to come in and break the school system down.”

Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, who was not invited to this meeting, has become something of a lightning rod to those looking for a return of local control. He’s gotten rough treatment at several public hearings but, so far, has shown no inclination to let the local systems run themselves. His office did not return calls for comment today.

The state is facing off against the Newark system in court. The schools there charge that the state has moved the goal line on its evaluation system, called QSAC — the Quality Single Accountability Continuum. The Education Law Center in Newark Executive Director David Sciarra argues that Newark’s schools have met the QSAC criteria to return to local control.

“The case is now moving forward and hopefully we’ll have a decision from the Appellate Court on whether the commissioner’s decision not to leave Newark complied with state law,” said Sciarra, who made a presentation on the case at the meeting.

Sen. Ron Rice, who authored the law that created QSAC, told the audience that the state needed to hear from residents. “The state takeover is no longer about a takeover,” he said. “It’s about occupation, and so our schools are really being occupied by folk who want to promulgate privatization.”

Pending a legal decision to the contrary, the school systems in all three cities will have to continue to take orders from the state, but board members say they’re going to keep the political pressure on, hoping that, in an election year, a new governor might be more receptive to their demands.