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News - Politics

Newark to Regain Control of Its Schools

More than 20 years after New Jersey took over Newark’s public schools due to academic failure and corruption, the state board of education has unanimously voted that the city is ready to regain full control of its classrooms.

By

Leslie Brody

More than 20 years after the state took over Newark’s public schools due to academic failure and corruption, New Jersey officials agreed Wednesday that the city is ready to regain full control of its classrooms.

While Newark leaders and parents celebrated, challenges loom for the district, including deciding who will run it and how to avoid any reversal of its recent progress.

Some residents worry that special-interest groups might gain too much clout in school elections that have often had low turnout, and nepotism could sway hiring and contract decisions in a district with a roughly $1 billion annual budget.

But Mayor Ras Baraka expressed optimism that local and state educators, university partners, nonprofits and the private sector will work together to help students.

“It’s a beautiful day for the residents of our city,” said the mayor, who made restoring local control of schools a key piece of his 2014 campaign. His comments came shortly after a 12-member state board of education in Trenton voted unanimously to start the lengthy process for a handover of governance.

A former principal, Mr. Baraka said city residents had a democratic right to run their own schools. “It doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes…but we have the right to correct them ourselves, like most Americans.”

The state will now create a transition plan and timetable with the district’s input. A public referendum, likely in the spring, will decide whether the school board will be elected by voters or appointed by the mayor, or perhaps a hybrid model. The new board will have to search for a replacement for Superintendent Chris Cerf, who said he wouldn’t ask to renew his contract, which ends in June.

The district has about 36,000 children in prekindergarten through 12th grade, and another 15,400 attend charters, which are taxpayer funded and independently operated.

Among the most important challenges will be attracting a top superintendent and high-quality members for a newly empowered board, said Shavar Jeffries, who was chair of Newark’s school advisory board from 2010 to 2011 and now is president of Democrats for Education Reform, a national advocacy group.

“Sadly we have a long history in Newark of school board members and other public officials prioritizing jobs, contracts, patronage and political favors instead of kids,” said Mr. Jeffries, who ran for mayor against Mr. Baraka three years ago. “We also have a tradition of elected officials working tirelessly for kids. I hope the latter wins out.”

When Mr. Cerf was appointed superintendent by the state in 2015, he said he was committed to leading Newark back to local control. A former New Jersey education commissioner, he argued that the original goals set for Newark to regain autonomy were unreasonable. State and local officials agreed the district should be judged by gains rather than proficiency targets.

Performance at many city schools remains low, but Newark students have made strong strides and a higher share pass state tests than in most poor urban districts in New Jersey.

According to preliminary scores from the district, last spring 31% of Newark’s students in grades three through eight passed state tests in English, up from 22% two years before. In math, almost 23% passed last spring, up from 17%. Most of its students are poor, and black or Hispanic.

District officials expect its graduation rate to be about 77% when state data are finalized for the Class of 2017, a big jump from 54% when the state took over in 1995, and about 60% six years ago.

Mr. Cerf expressed confidence the trajectory would continue. He said the district had strengthened the workforce, staff training and curriculum, and the advisory board had prepared to assume new responsibilities. “We have worked really hard to get everybody aligned around a common purpose,” he said.

Dale Russakoff, author of “The Prize,” a 2015 book about efforts to reform Newark schools, said the biggest challenges ahead are fiscal and political. She said the district has faced a financial crisis from the growth of charters in recent years, requiring downsizing, school closings and layoffs.

“The loss of secure, district jobs that once sustained families has been politically explosive even under state control, when no locally elected politicians were calling the shots,” she said by email.

“Once [Newark officials] take over, it will be 100 times more difficult to make those kinds of decisions. But for the district schools to survive, and for the maximum amount of money to reach children in classrooms, there is no getting around those choices. It is going to take a superintendent who has extraordinary trust from the community to lead this very fraught process.”

Write to Leslie Brody at leslie.brody@wsj.com

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