N.J. Regional Achievement Centers, a casualty of the state budget debate

As the N.J. Legislature and Gov. Christie duke it out over the State budget, a major casualty of the fracas has been our new Regional Achievement Centers (RAC’s).

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

As the N.J. Legislature and Gov. Christie duke it out over the State budget, a major casualty of the fracas has been our new Regional Achievement Centers (RAC’s). According to the DOE, RAC’s are part of a new system that would focus state resources on New Jersey’s struggling school districts while easing strict oversight of successful ones. These RAC’s represent “a fundamental shift from a system of primarily oversight and monitoring to service delivery and support.”

For example, in our successful Race To The Top application, which garnered us $38 million in federal funds, the DOE explained, “NJ’s Regional Achievement Centers, struggling schools, and their districts will partner to set clear goals for student growth, put proven turnaround principles into action, and use data to drive decision-making and accountability. Working together, we will meet our shared goal of closing the achievement gap and preparing all of our students for success in college and career.”

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Yet, Senate Democrats want to cut funding for the RAC’s, in spite of their importance to NJ’s education reform efforts.

What’s really behind that $1.7 million cut, a gratuitous splinter in the edifice of NJ’s proposed FY13 $31.7 billion budget? Is it a sop to anti-education reformers after the insult of the passage of the tenure reform bill last month? A signal that the School Funding formula, a chronic topic of dissent, is sacrosanct? A swipe at the recently-announced grant from the ed reform-minded Broad Foundation for staff training for the RAC’s? (Education Law Center and Save Our Schools-NJ subscribe to the theory that the DOE is embroiled in a conspiracy with Broad and FaceBook’s Mark Zuckerberg to “privatize” public schools.)

According to John Mooney of NJ Spotlight (the only reporter covering this story), one reason for the cut is that Democrats are miffed that RAC’s could potentially replace our current system of 21 county offices overseen by 21 Executive County Superintendents (ECS’s), a system enacted by the Legislature in 2008 during former Gov. Corzine’s tenure. At the time, school reform in Jersey was all about consolidation: we can find fiscal efficiencies (and, maybe, even a pinch of equity) by merging some of our hundreds of districts.

From 6A:23A, the bill that created those ECS’s:

“No later than three years following the effective date of sections 42 to 58 of P.L.2007, c.63 (C.18A:7-11 et al.), (the Executive County Superintendent will) recommend to the commissioner a school district consolidation plan to eliminate all districts, other than county-based districts and other than preschool or kindergarten through grade 12 districts in the county, through the establishment or enlargement of regional school districts.”

Well, we all know how that went: a total bust. Somehow, during the development of 6A, no one imagined its implausibility. By law, school mergers require buy-in from all affected districts. What’s the likelihood that a board of education would vote “yes,” especially if it would lead to an increase in local property taxes,? Who’s going to pay for the required feasibility studies and community outreach? And, most importantly, are boards really going to give up local control in a state devoted to home rule?

Statehouse Democrats appear steadfast in their fidelity to Corzine’s impossible plan, or at least that seems to be the public rationale for the removal of RAC’s from the proposed 2013 State budget. Assemblyman John Burzichelli, chair of the Assembly Budget Committee insisted, “we did that work [on 6A] for a reason. I know the administration is focused on other issues, charter schools, tenure and things like that, but these [county offices] are important, too.”

We’ll give him this too: word on the street is that preparation for the launch of RAC’s, including hiring for the new positions — turnaround coaches, data specialists, project managers — is behind schedule and the timeline for implementation a tad optimistic.

So maybe it’s that simple: there is $1.7 million sloshing around the state budget and our legislators are efficient money managers. Or maybe it’s a shot over the bow, a signal that, despite promises made to the feds by the Christie Administration, Statehouse Democrats are not quite ready to sign on to that “fundamental shift.”


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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