Local control of schools is prized to an extraordinary degree in New Jersey. Partly that’s because parents and communities want a say in how their children are educated. But it’s also because local officials love to have funds and jobs to dispense.
Since the community and parents also provide the funds as taxpayers, the interests and responsibilities are aligned. Or at least they were until the state Supreme Court in 1973 managed to find a requirement in the N.J. Constitution that the state must guarantee all students access to a “thorough and efficient” education. From then on, home rule continued but responsibility for school effectiveness rested ultimately with the state.
The state Department of Education, however, wasn’t running the schools, just overseeing them with a view to developing policies and practices. It had no recourse when local districts failed to provide that court-ordered education.
So in 1987, the state enacted the nation’s first school takeover law. It was used to take full control of first Jersey City schools and then those in Newark and Patterson.
Those temporary takeovers dragged out for decades — only this year has the Newark district, taken over in 1995, been scheduled for transition back to local control. The takeover law was deemed flawed, especially in terms of the standards for resuming local control, and it was replaced as part of the Quality Single Assessment Continuum, a statewide system for evaluating schools implemented in 2007. Fiscal monitors for schools, an approach short of a full takeover, also were authorized then.
Since a dozen years later Newark still isn’t back to local control and Pleasantville just marked a decade under a state monitor, the reforms look like they haven’t resulted in the shortening of state interventions.
Since the state must answer to the court and it is state taxpayers who must pay if a school needs a bailout, there’s no question monitors and, in extreme cases, takeovers are needed.
And monitors provide an appropriate intermediate step, giving a state designee power over school finances while allowing administrations and boards to retain most other functions. They develop plans to cure problems found in audits, such as poor internal controls, running deficits and failure to comply with federal grant requirements.
But deficient schools aren’t regaining the ability to operate responsibly and effectively themselves soon enough.
A bill was introduced this year to have the state pay for school monitors and related costs. That would be exactly backwards, removing one of the few incentives for local officials and taxpayers to help put things right as quickly as possible.
We think the problem is partly that the state isn’t focusing on rebuilding the local capacity to manage schools properly and partly that many local officials are too content to oppose state control and do the minimum required of them.
We think the state needs to develop a defined and measured process for training school administrators and boards to meet their fiscal and educational obligations. Successful completion of such training should be required for officials of distressed districts to keep their positions.
Takeover officials and monitors should be on a defined schedule too and have to answer to their DOE bosses when progress benchmarks aren’t met.
Whether these changes can be done administratively under existing law or require a legislative amendment, such a focus should be part of every takeover and monitoring.
Changing the rules or law may take time, but local school and state officials needn’t wait to start heading in that direction.
Frankly, school officials should see a state monitor or takeover as a sign of an embarrassing failure on their part, one that they should be eager to overcome and not repeat going forward. And state officials should start measuring their success in part by how quickly and confidently they can relinquish their temporary local powers.