NJDOE Rushes Ahead With New Accountability System That Targets Schools Serving Low-Income Students of Color
In recent months, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) has rushed to establish “Regional Achievement Centers” (RAC) as part of the NCLB waiver granted to New Jersey in 2012 by the U.S. Education Department. However, serious questions remain about the scope of RAC activities and the sources of their funding.
The RACs, which are state-run centers designed to intervene in low-performing schools, have begun interventions in 75 “priority” and 153 “focus” schools serving mostly low-income communities of color in 87 districts throughout the state. “Quality School Reviews” and “School Improvement Plans” are being prepared for “priority” schools with the lowest test scores and are scheduled for “focus” schools with large achievement gaps or low performance among student subgroups.
But while RAC interventions are well underway, the State has still not adopted rules governing their activities as required by the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). After Education Law Center raised this concern with the Attorney General’s office, the NJDOE belatedly posted proposed regulations that raise additional questions about RAC activities.
There are also questions about RAC funding. Last spring, the NJ Legislature deleted from the FY13 State Budget NJDOE’s request for $1.7 million to support the RACs. But despite this, the centers have moved ahead, in part with private funding from the California-based Broad Foundation, which has made over $2 million in grants to support RAC plans and subsidize staff salaries.
The RACs are also asserting control over millions in federal Title I funds designated for programs in high poverty schools. The NJDOE plans to allocate several million Title I dollars to support the RACs statewide and is also directing “priority” and “focus” schools to set aside up to 30% of their school-based Title I funds to implement RAC-approved “School Improvement Plans.”
NJDOE’s proposed “school turnaround and improvement” rules also raise many issues. For example, the Department proposes a new category of “Qualified Turnaround Providers” (QTP) that the RACs could assign to schools to “assist” with implementation of school improvement plans. A QTP is vaguely defined as “an entity with demonstrated success…in one or more of the [Department’s] turnaround principles.” Under the proposed rules, an “agreement shall be executed between the QTP and the Commissioner setting forth the responsibilities and expected outcomes.” However, “the cost of the QTP shall be at the expense of the school district in which the Priority or Focus School is located.”
Another issue involves the scope of RAC interventions and the Commissioner’s authority to close or take over individual district schools. RAC presentations and multiple NJDOE documents warn that “Priority Schools that fail to implement the required interventions or fail to demonstrate required improvement in student academic achievement may become subject to state-ordered closure or other action.” However, the proposed “turnaround regulations” do not mention closing district schools or cite any statutory authority for such action by the Commissioner.
Similarly, additional options for “aggressive intervention” that have been referenced repeatedly in NJDOE memos, directives, grant proposals and press statements appear to lack statutory basis. These include plans to create “an achievement district” under the Commissioner’s control for schools deemed to be making insufficient progress, the conversion of district schools into charters, and turning over district schools to private, for-profit management firms. None of these options appear in the proposed regulations where it would be necessary to cite appropriate legislative authority for such actions, yet all continue to be under consideration by the Department.
The RACs are a major part of NJDOE’s efforts over the past year to implement a new statewide accountability system and new oversight requirements for NJ districts, schools and educators. The Commissioner has called these changes a “fundamental shift” in the Department’s operations.
These significant changes in the way in which schools are monitored and “supported” by the NJDOE were defined largely through a federally-designed NCLB waiver process that by-passed the Legislature, and are being implemented with almost no review by the usual oversight committees. At the same time, the Department is proposing to repeal or revise hundreds of existing regulations and dozens of state statutes, all while soliciting millions of dollars in grant funds from private foundations in support of specific policy goals.
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