Newark regains local control of public schools

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

A joyful rally at city hall as Newark celebrated regaining local control over its school district and 55,000 students. This follows more than two decades of deeply-resented, state-imposed rules, budgets and superintendents.

“We now have control over our own children’s lives,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “And it doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes, or there won’t be errors, or obstacles, or pitfalls or things that may go wrong. But it does mean that we have the right to make the mistakes and have the right to correct them ourselves.”

“We now have control over our own children’s lives.”

“I think today marks a new day, a new era when we really see what the community can really do, with involvement,” said Newark Schools Advisory Board Chairman Marques-Aquil Lewis.

Earlier on Wednesday, New Jersey’s State Board of Education voted unanimously to end state takeover, deciding Newark had achieved all the requisite benchmarks in self-governance, financial reform and student performance.

“The right to self-government can no longer be divorced from the great goal of providing high quality education in the City of Newark,” said Board President Arcelio Aponte.

The crowd applauded when the motion carried. But, the applause is hard-won. Back in 1995, the state stepped in to improve education and end corruption in the district where only 54 percent of students graduated. That rate is now 77 percent, and Newark kids also show steadily improving grades in reading and math. But the takeover process sparked family fury in Newark neighborhoods where parents felt ignored, and disenfranchised, particularly after Gov. Christie appointee Cami Anderson took charge as superintendent in 2011.

Anderson imposed her “One Newark” plan that parents felt denied them school choice. Students mutinied, for example, high schoolers staged walkouts and occupied Anderson’s office at the district administration building. After Anderson left, Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Chris Cerf restored calm, and worked with the local board, Mayor Baraka and neighborhoods.

“When rhetoric is flying, when anger is in the air, it is hard to keep your eye on the prize. And I think that’s why this has happened, because underneath everything there has been an insistence on better schools and better options,” said Cerf.

“The successes that were mentioned today are successes that Newark teachers achieved, even with the state’s boot on their back,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

What comes next? The state and the district must plan for transition. And next year, Newark’s voters must decide if they want an elected school board or one appointed by the mayor.

“I’d like an elected school board. I think that’s important for the residents to maintain as much democracy as possible. I’m going to be involved in that as much as I possibly can,” said Baraka.

“At this point, I think it’s also an opportunity to remove the politics out of public schools, well schools, period. I think these decisions have to be made for children,” said community activist Donna Jackson.

But it’s tough to weed out all the politics. Cerf’s contract ends in June — and the district will launch a nationwide search to replace him. Meanwhile, Camden and Paterson still chafe under state control. Perhaps, not for long.

“Over two decades later, I have learned one thing: state takeover does not work,” said Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Teresa Ruiz.

The Essex County lawmaker said she will draft legislation that will make district remediation more of a partnership than an occupation.