DAVID G. SCIARRA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
Education Law Center strongly supports Assembly Bill 3637, which repeals New Jersey’s school district takeover law. We thank Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly for his leadership on this pressing issue and all the co-sponsors for standing as champions of education equity in our State Legislature.
Next year will mark 30 years since the State’s school district takeover law was enacted by the Legislature. The primary purpose of the law was to address ongoing patterns of fiscal mismanagement of school budgets by local districts. In the wake of its passage, the State assumed operation of three of our largest school districts. Newark has been under State control for 20 years, Paterson for 25 years, and Jersey City for 27 years. In 2013, the State assumed formal operation of the Camden schools, a district that had been under intensive State control under special economic recovery legislation for the five preceding years.
All four State takeover districts serve very high concentrations of low-income children, English language learners, and students with disabilities. All of the districts are almost exclusively African American and Latino. For over two decades – and in Camden’s case almost a decade – the voters, taxpayers and parents in these communities have been effectively disenfranchised and disconnected from the operation of their neighborhood schools – schools which, as in every other New Jersey district, are supported by local property tax revenue.
Repealing the State takeover law is long overdue. There are three reasons why the Legislature should act quickly to end the State’s long-term operation of the Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and Camden public schools.
First, State takeover as a means to improve educational opportunities and outcomes has proven, over these many years, to be completely ineffectual. Nor has State operation stabilized districts budgets. In fact, the State-run districts continue to be among our lowest performing, especially when compared to the performance of other locally governed, high poverty districts, such as Elizabeth, Perth Amboy, New Brunswick, Union City and Passaic. Furthermore, the Paterson and Newark budgets continue to suffer from year to year, with severe and glaring reductions in essential teachers, support staff and other resources necessary for a thorough and efficient education.
Second, State takeover is obsolete. Since 1987, several new tools have been put in place to address fiscal and other problems in local districts. The fiscal accountability law was enacted over a decade ago to surgically deal with districts in fiscal and budgetary crisis, allowing for the appointment of a State Fiscal Monitor with power to override local boards of education and fix broken budgets. The extensive accountability system put in place over the last 15 years under NJ Department of Education regulation determines whether schools and districts are meeting educational performance benchmarks and, if not, prescribes interventions by the State to make needed improvements in program and instruction.
Bottom line: these new tools are more nuanced and strategic and fully enable the State to take action to ensure New Jersey school children are afforded a thorough and efficient education.
Third, State takeover under Governor Christie’s Administration is being used for a purpose for which the law was never intended. Takeover was never meant to be a vehicle for allowing the State to impose any preferred set of education reforms – such as charter school expansion and merit pay for teachers – on local communities that have no say in such important and potentially long-lasting changes. Rather, it was intended to allow the State to intervene and fix identified problems and exit as quickly as possible. When Governor Christie announced in 2011 that the State would not leave Newark even if the district met the standards for restoration of local control, State takeover entered a new and deeply disturbing phase. Disenfranchised local residents faced the prospect of having no say in the future of their schools with no end in sight, solely to achieve a narrow, political agenda emanating from Trenton.
For these reasons, it is time to end the State takeover law and promptly restore local control of the Newark, Paterson, Jersey City and Camden schools to the residents of those communities, just as is the case in every other New Jersey municipality. We urge the Legislature to quickly approve this bill.
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications