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N.J. State Lawmaker Tries to Bolster Local Control in Troubled Newark District

Newark, N.J. schools have a troubled history that stretches back decades, but the battle has only gotten more intense recently. As my colleague, Lesli Maxwell, over at District Dossier wrote last week, Superintendent Cami Anderon's "One Newark" proposal for the state-run district, which would expand the presence of charter schools while shutting down some low-performing schools, has triggered a significant backlash.

A few principals have claimed they were improperly suspended due to their opposition to Anderson's plan, and have filed a federal lawsuit against her. Another explosive moment came during a community forum, when a speaker brought up Anderson's "brown baby" (her biracial son), prompting her to exit the meeting.

Now state Sen. Ronald Rice, a Democrat who represents Newark, is wading into the controversy. He has introduced legislation establishing new requirements prior to a school closure. Senate Bill 966 applies to a "state district superintendent," which includes officials like Anderson who run districts for the state. Although the district is controlled by New Jersey officials, Rice's proposal would require Anderson to get approval from the local "board of education," which in this case is Newark's School Advisory Board, prior to applying to Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf to close a school.

Given that last year, this advisory board voted "no confidence" in Anderson, as well as some tense recent advisory board meetings (the "brown baby" remark occurred at one), such approval for school closures is "unlikely," as Newark Star-Ledger reporter Peggy McGlone wrote. The Senate Education Committee approved the bill by a 4-0 vote on Jan. 30

If the bill gains more traction, it could throw the balance of power in Newark schools into question. If an "advisory" board can veto a state official's plan to close schools and stymie that official's major initiative, who really controls the district? This tug-of-war highlights an issue I wrote about for our 2014 edition of Quality Counts: the power struggles between state and local K-12 officials that are sometimes overshadowed by high-profile state-vs.-federal tussles. 

In addition, Rice's legislation would require that any school closures "will not produce, sustain, or contribute to unlawful segregation of student populations on the basis of race or national origin, socioeconomic status, disability status, or English language proficiency." (You can read the full legislation below.)

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