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New Jersey Districts Chafe Under State Control

Citing academic and financial mismanagement, New Jersey took full control of the 28,000-student Jersey City district in 1989, followed by Paterson and Newark.

But now teachers, parents and community leaders of those districts are looking at ways to return to local control.

The 39,000-student Newark district has been under state control for 16 years, and though the district has become a laboratory for school reform (including reform driven by a $100 million donation from Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg) others say that local voices have been disregarded, according an article published Sunday in The New York Times.

"These critics say that the state has unilaterally imposed a controversial agenda—replacing principals, opening new schools, placing charter schools inside district buildings—dreamed up by outsiders and consultants who do not understand the needs of their children, and that there is not enough opportunity for input by parents and community-based advocates. ...

But [New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie] has ruled out a return to local control anytime soon, and his acting education commissioner, Christopher D. Cerf, said in an interview that the district had not yet shown the sustained progress required to end Trenton's involvement."

Meanwhile, in Paterson, August marked the 20th anniversary of state control of the 28,400-student district. The district has had four superintendents since 1991, which has made it difficult for reforms to stick, say local critics in an article published earlier this year on NorthJersey.com, the website of the Bergen Record.

"District officials and people in the community at best view the last two decades of state control as a mixed bag, and at worst as a long stretch of inconsistent leadership that has hobbled progress toward a better education for city children. ....

State officials say restoring local control depends upon the district showing it can make progress on several fronts, including student achievement.

'Historically, Paterson's public schools have not been serving children at the consistently high levels they deserve,' said Justin Barra, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Of the district's 39 schools, 25 are rated as being in need of improvement under the standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, he said. Of those schools, 16 have been so listed for at least five years."

States are now looking at other ways to address low-performing districts, including creating state turnaround districts like the Recovery District in Louisiana and the Tennessee Achievement District, which will manage low-performing schools in Chattanooga, Memphis and Nashville. I explore those turnaround districts in an Education Week story to be published Friday.

Want to keep up with school district news? Follow @district_doss on Twitter.

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