Education Law Center's Flawed Plan for Newark Schools' Transition to Local Control

Last week Theresa Luhm, managing director of the Education Law Center proposed a timeline for a transition to local control for Newark Public Schools. But her impetuous timeline is generated by politics, not what's best for Newark's 40,000 schoolchildren.

Luhm’s proposal is based on outdated numbers from the State’s accountability metric for school districts, called QSAC. (Board members and administrators have converted the acronym to a verb, e.g., “we’re being QSAC-ed,” profanity optional.)  Every three years, more often depending on degree of district dysfunction, each school district in N.J. prepares documentation to prove proficiency in five areas: Instructional & Program, Fiscal Management, Governance, Operations, and Personnel. A district “passes QSAC” if it gets at least 80 points on each section, earning the designation of “highly-performing district.”

But the state just released its most recent QSAC report on Newark and the district’s scores don’t inspire much confidence. With the exception of Operations, every category is down since 2011 (when Cami Anderson took over), except for Instruction and Program, which started high (although not high enough), dipped sharply down, and then recovered  a bit this past year. Specifically, the district earned 82% in Fiscal Management, 72% in Governance, 95% in Operations, 60% in Personnel, and 58% in Instruction and Program.

From today’s NJ Spotlight: “the Newark district fell short in three of five measured areas. Included was the critical area of governance, which would allow the local board to take binding votes and appoint its own superintendent.”

 In case you’re wondering, this is not all Cami Anderson’s fault, especially the low Governance score which is all on the Board and, frankly, not brain surgery. Passing grades in this category require methodical review of policies and procedures, thoughtful goal-setting, adoption of curricula, and  annual superintendent evaluations (probably not required in this case). NJ School Boards Association also strongly recommends that boards annually perform self-evaluations.

Clearly local control is on the horizon, but Education Law Center’s timeline is too much, too soon. Luhm proposes to complete the process by next June. Here’s how she says it would work: the just-appointed  Newark Educational Success Board would ignore student achievement, fix Governance, and finalize a plan by early 2016. The plan would be approved by whoever has to approve it. Then the community would  hold a referendum in May 2016 on whether residents prefer an elected or mayor-appointed school board. School board elections, if that’s what residents want, would be scheduled for June, and “new, fully-empowered board” would be seated right away.

I’m all for aggressive planning and I understand the urgency.  But this timeline has less to do with the well-being of schoolchildren and more to do with ELC’s animosity towards Anderson, Cerf, and Christie.

What’s fast but realistic? Two to three years, not ten months from now. Let’s do this fast, but do it right.

New Newark Superintendent Cerf said in a statement, “While the report shows that there is still work to do, I want to make clear that it will not impede either our commitment to restore the District to local control, or the progress we are making towards fulfilling that commitment."

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