In N.J. schools, what’s more important: Local control or student outcomes?

In New Jersey, nothing gets our blood boiling faster than the threat of state intervention in the affairs of local schools.

This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

In New Jersey, nothing gets our blood boiling faster than the threat of state intervention in the affairs of local schools. Every time the Department of Education starts lurching around provincial borders, we summon our inner Ron Pauls and start mewling about the virtues of home rule and the clumsy overreach of governmental power-hungry dunderheads.

But when is a school district dysfunctional enough to warrant that interference? How do we balance our kneejerk reactions to the loss of local control with the educational needs of kids who languish in chronically failing school districts? When does bureaucratic excess become appropriate intervention? And how do we square the fact that the dysfunctional schools are mostly in impoverished neighborhoods: is local control of schools an entitlement of the wealthy?

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In just the past month, several districts have offered themselves as studies of that delicate balance.

Last week the Trenton Board of Education, whose members are selected by the mayor, chose a new superintendent from a pool of three finalists. The Board’s choice so enraged famously corrupt Mayor Tony Mack that he promptly rescinded the appointments of two of the board members. Meanwhile, Trenton Public Schools has the lowest graduation rate in the state. Ten of the district’s 20 schools are on the list of the 75 worst-performing schools in the state (“Priority Schools”).

The district already has a Fiscal Monitor. The designation “Priority School” means Trenton will receive more DOE oversight. What’s more important: local control or student outcomes?

Let’s move south to Ocean County’s dysfunctional Lakewood Board of Education, the subject of a scathing expose this month in the Asbury Park Press. A grassroots group of minority parents called Lakewood Unite — slogan: “Silent No More” — met with Ed. Comm. Christopher Cerf recently to plead for state intervention. A couple of the revelations in the APP articles: the Board falsified graduation rate data in order to qualify for a $6 million federal grant and a principal was forced to lie to parents to control costs of educating in-district children with special needs.

Another example: over at Camden City Schools, an administrator is suing the School Board because she was fired for refusing to falsify attendance records for Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young, who has been absent 186 days in the previous 18 months. Twenty-three of Camden City’s 26 schools are on a list of “Priority Schools.” In other words, one third of NJ’s worst schools are in Camden. Example: at Wiggins School, a K-6 school, 14.9 percent of third-graders were deemed proficient in language arts. Everyone else failed to meet proficiency benchmarks. Third grade reading proficiency, by the way, is generally regarded as the “pivot point” for continued school success.

And, NJ Spotlight reported this week, there’s a new coalition at Paterson Public Schools, formed to protest new top-down initiatives from Superintendent Donnie Evans. The new group, drawn from the school board, the teachers’ union, and the local education foundation, expressed indignation at the new reorganization plan and a directive to end “social promotion,” whereby kids are passed along to the next grade regardless of whether they learn anything.

Said one member of the new group, “So the state will pay to have a third party come in and improve our culture and climate,” Rosie Grant of the Paterson Education Fund said.

“These are the people who will decide how to turn around our schools,” she said. “You can forget about local control.”

Meanwhile, at John F. Kennedy School in Paterson, only 20 percent of the high school graduating class passed the standardized proficiency assessment, widely regarded as an 8th grade level test.

The fierce guardians of local control in Paterson deserve respect and deference. But the kids stuck in JFK School (and Wiggins in Camden, and the high schools in Lakewood and Trenton) deserve our respect and deference too.

What’s the proper balance?


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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