Intervening in Troubled School Districts Just Got Simpler

March 21, 2012

 The Christie administration and the state Board of Education have moved ahead to streamline how and when they decide to intervene in school districts.

Meanwhile, debates roil in two of New Jersey's biggest cities over what role the state should play in running local schools in the first place.

The BOE this month gave final approval to the administration's revisions to the state's monitoring system, the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC). The system grades districts on financial, academic, and operational measures to determine how much the state should be involved, ranging from assistance in specific areas to full intervention.

The streamlining largely reduced the number of measures and the level of paperwork required from any district being evaluated. Specifically, the number of criteria plunged to 48, down from 330.

The QSAC changes are separate from the administration’s new push to step in at individual schools as well, with new leverage for replacing staff and revamping programs.

But while the QSAC process may have gotten easier, it may not make it much easier for districts to actually pass, as Camden and Newark are finding out.

In Camden, the state's QSAC review completed this winter found the district falling short in every category and spurring the likelihood of aggressive intervention. In the area of instruction, it met just 7 percent of the indicators.

"Currently, 76 percent of the district's students are below proficiency in language arts literacy, and 69 percent are below proficiency in math," wrote acting education commissioner Chris Cerf in his report to the district. "These proficiency levels are unacceptably low."

State officials aren't yet discussing the possibilities, but the scathing report launched the next phase in the process, a separate "in-depth evaluation" of the schools by teams of state and outside experts.

The public in Camden will also start to have its say, beginning tomorrow night at a public hearing announced this week. It will be held at the Adventure Aquarium on Riverside Drive, starting at 5:30 p.m.

In Newark, meanwhile, state intervention is old news: Trenton has been in control via a state-appointed superintendent for nearly 20 years. And hardly a month has passed without oversight coming up as a sore point, even among some of the state's supporters.

The issue flared up again this week with the release of a plan by Superintendent Cami Anderson to reorganize the district in the face of continued low performance and dropping enrollment. It calls for closing of six schools and shaking up another eight with new leadership and programs.

The local advisory board a nonbinding elected board that came with the state's takeover met last night for the first time since the plan was finalized. The ongoing arguments as to who's in charge was evident.

"The state has been failing us for 16 years, and they continue to fail us," said Marques-Aquil Lewis, one of the most outspoken members.

The board itself formally challenged the state's control this winter, filing suit in state appellate court against Cerf's latest QSAC report, which maintained full state control despite some passing scores.

While lawyers exchange briefs early in the legal challenge, advisory board members yesterday said the issue of the local control remains critical as the district goes through wrenching changes.

Eliana Pintor Marin, the board's chairman, said the resolution of the legal challenge won't come in time to affect the plan that Anderson has put forward. It is a plan that Marin has largely supported so far.

"This is not about what Cami has done," she said in an interview last night.

"Ultimately, [return to local control] could take many years. It's not something imminent," the chairman said. "But we'd like at least some progression toward local control."

The state BOE has the final say about state control in both Camden and Newark, as well as in other districts that fall short of the new QSAC measurements.

And the president of the board, Arcelio Aponte, said last night that he appreciates the process providing the exit strategy for the state's takeovers. Aponte himself is a Newark native, and works for the city.

"It is the only mechanism in place," he said. "But it can't just be about those benchmarks either. There is still a significant amount of work for the district to do. The test scores and graduation rates are not where they should be."