In a letter submitted May 18, Education Law Center calls on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to “promptly reject” New Jersey’s application to renew its waiver under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) until the State removes a proposed exemption from federally-mandated interventions for low performing schools in State-operated districts.
The ELC demand is triggered by NJ Education Commissioner David Hespe’s proposal to eliminate State-led efforts to improve academic outcomes for students in low performing schools in Newark and other districts under the State’s direct control. In NJ’s application to renew the ESEA waiver for another three years, Commissioner Hespe proposes exempting low performing schools – called “priority” and “focus” schools – in State-run Newark, Camden, Paterson and Jersey City from intervention and assistance by the NJ Department of Education’s (NJDOE) Regional Achievement Centers (RACs). Instead, the Commissioner would allow the State Superintendents in those districts to implement their own local “initiatives,” without RAC oversight and support.
If the U.S. Department of Education (USED) approves the waiver renewal application, the NJDOE will treat priority and focus schools in State-controlled districts differently from such schools in all other NJ districts. There are 91 priority and focus schools in State-operated Newark, Camden, Paterson and Jersey City, and there are an additional 157 priority and focus schools in 76 districts around the state.
“The Commissioner offers no justification or basis for withdrawing RAC intervention and support from low performing schools in Newark and the other districts under State control,” said ELC Executive Director David Sciarra. “If anything, the Commissioner should redouble efforts to boost instruction, curriculum and outcomes, instead of walking away from the students, teachers and principals in these State-run schools.”
The proposal to treat priority and focus schools in State-operated districts differently from schools in other districts comes on the heels of ELC’s pending complaint to Secretary Duncan that the Essex/Hudson RAC has provided no expert and professional assistance to Newark’s 28 priority and focus schools since 2102. ELC presented evidence that, under former Commissioner Christopher Cerf, NJDOE acceded to a demand by State Superintendent Cami Anderson to keep the Essex/Hudson RAC out of the Newark schools, a move which deprived those schools of the interventions required by New Jersey’s ESEA waiver and State Turnaround regulations. ELC also contends that State officials blatantly misrepresented the status of waiver implementation when – on several occasions – they told USED monitors that RAC interventions and supports were being provided to all priority and focus schools, including those in Newark.
Along with rejecting New Jersey’s ESEA waiver renewal as submitted, ELC is calling on Secretary Duncan to return the application to State officials with explicit instructions to remove the proposed exemption of priority and focus schools in State-run districts from RAC-led improvement efforts. In addition, ELC is demanding that the Secretary direct New Jersey to immediately dispatch RAC experts to all Newark priority and focus schools, and then place those schools on the required multi-year, RAC-led improvement cycle.
“New Jersey’s refusal, since 2012, to give Newark’s priority and focus schools the intensive support needed to improve outcomes for students is unconscionable,” Mr. Sciarra added. “Secretary Duncan must show his resolve about holding states accountable for their waiver commitments to USED, especially given the substantial evidence that New Jersey misled federal monitors about the State’s decision to give Newark a pass from long overdue, and urgently needed, interventions in the district’s lowest performing schools.”
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