Newark, NJ – June 24, 2015
Responding to a complaint filed by Education Law Center (ELC), the U.S. Department of Education (USED) has found the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) failed to comply with requirements of its Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waiver by not intervening to improve 28 low-performing schools in Newark.
By letter dated June 19, Acting Assistant Secretary Heather Reiman details USED’s investigation of ELC’s complaint that, in 2012, then-Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf improperly gave into a demand from Newark’s State-appointed Superintendent, Cami Anderson, to allow her to retain full control over 28 low-performing schools classified by NJDOE as “priority” and “focus” schools. Superintendent Anderson wanted to prevent qualified staff from the NJDOE’s Regional Achievement Center (RAC) for Hudson/Essex Counties from intervening to improve the schools, as is required for all priority and focus schools statewide under New Jersey’s ESEA waiver and State “school turnaround” regulations.
Assistant Secretary Reiman concludes that USED’s investigation “supports the allegations” in ELC’s complaint “that the Essex/Hudson RAC did not fulfill the responsibilities of a RAC outlined in New Jersey’s ESEA flexibility request with respect to NPS’s Priority and Focus schools.” The Assistant Secretary, in reviewing NJ Education Commissioner David Hespe’s response to ELC’s complaint, found:
- The Essex/Hudson RAC did not conduct the mandated school reviews or complete improvement plans for each Newark priority and focus school.
- The Essex/Hudson RAC provided no assistance to the Newark schools from qualified RAC staff, and did not provide other assistance required by the ESEA waiver to help the schools improve student outcomes over the last three years.
- State Superintendent Anderson was given free rein to devise improvement plans for schools that did not conform to the rigorous requirements in the ESEA waiver, and which NJDOE carried out in other priority and focus schools across the state.
The Assistant Secretary also acknowledges ELC’s complaint that NJDOE’s failure to intervene in the Newark schools not only violates the conditions of New Jersey’s ESEA waiver, but also conflicts with State school turnaround regulations. Those regulations codify in state law the RAC intervention and improvement protocols in the ESEA waiver.
“The Assistant Secretary has now confirmed what we’ve known for some time: New Jersey education officials flagrantly violated their promise to the U.S. Department of Education that they would bring significant and sustained help to all low-performing schools, including those in Newark,” said ELC Executive Director David Sciarra. “Governor Chris Christie’s administration abandoned these schools for the last three years, leaving teachers, principals and parents without the resources and support they desperately need to improve outcomes for students.”
While finding a violation of the ESEA waiver, the Assistant Secretary did not indicate what, if any, sanctions will be imposed on New Jersey. She did, however, make clear that USED is continuing its investigation and hasn’t made any decision on New Jersey’s pending application to renew the waiver for the next three years.
“Although we welcome the Assistant Secretary’s finding that the express terms of the ESEA waiver were violated, we intend to press USED not to renew New Jersey’s waiver until Commissioner Hespe and the State Board of Education commit to immediately commence the RAC-led improvement efforts in all 28 priority and focus schools in Newark,” Mr. Sciarra added. “The federal government must order immediate corrective action, including withholding federal funds if necessary, to address the Christie Administration’s blatant disregard for the thousands of students in these low-performing Newark schools over the last three years. ”
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