After more than two decades under state control, Newark Public Schools are one significant step closer to regaining control of their own fate. Having passed a personnel policy test with a perfect score, the state Board of Education is returning some control over hiring to the local district. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams recently sat down with the state appointed Newark School Superintendent Chris Cerf to ask him exactly what that means.
Cerf: Well, the statue is called QSAC, and it divides the world into five different domains, one of which is personnel. What this means is over time the state is restoring each of these domains to the local board, the school board. What it means in practice is that the board will have substantially greater authority over everything related to human capital, human resources, personnel, hiring.
Williams: Speaking of QSAC, every district in the state is governed, is tested by, is accessed by QCAS — you won’t be. Newark is going to be accessed by growth. That’s pretty broad.
Cerf: One of those five domains I was mentioning is called instruction in program, and that one we applied for what’s called — I’m sorry for the technical terms — an equivalency waiver. Essentially what that is is measure us by student outcomes, but measure them predominately by outcomes that are based on growth rather than absolute proficiency.
Williams: The controversial PARCC test will now be a requirement for graduation for students graduating in the year 2021. New Jersey’s an outlier, there’s only six states that use the PARCC tes,t and not necessarily as a requirement for graduation. What do you think? You are ushered in as commissioner, right?
Cerf: Right, I did. So I very much support the decision of the state and of the governor to stick with the PARCC test. It starts with having high, clear standards. It is a travesty that so many students graduate from high school, have the diploma in hand and when they go on to the next phase of life, college in particular, they need to take remedial courses. It is not the case that having a high school diploma is equivalent to being ready for success, so having high standards is important. If you are going to have high standards you have to measure whether those standards are being met and the PARCC does that better than any other test that was ever created.
Williams: But the PARCC testing this year the scores were just abysmal.
Cerf: Well, they were up, they were up considerably. In Newark, for example, in reading they were up by over 6 percent, which is 6 percentile points, which is a very significant increase. Remember the graduation requirement does not apply at the moment. It will first apply to students who are currently seventh graders.
Williams: So you’re hoping that by setting these standards high, and saying this will be a requirement for graduation, the kids will rise to that level by 2021?
Cerf: You really do have to set the standards high, otherwise you have a race to the bottom and that’s what we saw under the old regime. They define proficiency in such a low way that it had essentially had no meaning. Common core standards and the PARCC are a step in the direction of correcting that.
Williams: Let’s talk about state funding for school districts. For years the urban districts, we call them Abbott districts, have gotten more money than suburban districts because of the additional challenges that it’s presumed urban students face. Gov. Christie has upended that by suggesting, proposing, a formula that he calls the ‘fairness formula’ that would just give a flat rate to each student. That would mean what to the Newark schools?
Cerf: Well, to put this in context, there is now a debate in Trenton, the Senate president has a point of view, the head of the Senate Education Committee has a point of view, the governor has a point of view and what I really think that reflects is a broad consensus that the statutory funding formula, which is in an act called SFRA, that is meant to implement a constitutional requirement set by the Supreme Court has outlived its time.
Cerf: I’m not saying it’s fundamentally erroneous. I’m saying there are lots of asymmetries and problems and dislocations and it needs to be, at minimum, tuned up. While there is this conversation in Trenton, my job and the job of my colleagues and my team and the 5,000 individuals that work for the Newark Public School system, is to take the resources that are allocated and make sure that every child gets access to a quality education.
Williams: But can you survive on 46 percent less resources, which is what this so-called ‘fairness formula’ would do?
Cerf: It would be very difficult to experience a cut. In fact, it would be extremely difficult to absorb a cut of that magnitude. But you have to remember, Mary Alice, how these political conversations take place. People define extreme ends of the continuum and then they work together to find a reasonable ground. I view that as exactly what’s happening in Trenton today.
Williams: So not necessarily what’s been proposed, but something after the sausage machine works.
Cerf: Exactly. It’s a very rare day when what is proposed is what is legislated in all domains.
Williams: What’s the biggest challenge of getting full control back, and what would full control mean for Newark. Is it ready?
Cerf: I think Newark has made tremendous progress, as reflected in its academic success, as reflected in its fiscal responsibilities, as reflected in its sort of operational discipline. I do think it is approaching the point where it is ready, but I also think that contrary to the way the term was bandied about sometimes where people talk about flipping a toggle switch to go from state operation to local control, all of us need to be organized around the principle that this transition needs to sustain and embed the work that is working and to make sure that the transition is responsible and orderly and supports the interest of children.
Williams: And therefore incremental, one step at a time.
Cerf: That’s the way the statue works.
Williams: And is that going to happen by next year?
Cerf: It is going to happen. It’s not in my hands, it’s in the hands of the state. The path that we are on now looks a little bit like this; so fiscal has been returned; operations has been returned; personnel, as you mention, has just been returned. Governance, which is perhaps the most important one, they basically said you are over the 80 threshold, which is a necessary condition for return, let’s just take one more look to see that you’ve sustained that progress. That should happen next spring and then we’ll move toward local control. That appears to be the path that we’re on.