New Jersey finds school takeovers are no solution

After decade, Jersey City records no big turnaround in student performance

April 22, 1999|By Maria Newman | Maria Newman,New York Times News Service

NEWARK, N.J. -- Ten years ago, New Jersey officials decided they were tired of watching from the sideline as Jersey City school and city officials seemed more concerned with providing jobs for friends than with falling student test scores. So state officials took charge of the system, kicking out the superintendent and school board members.

A decade into state control, attendance is up slightly in Jersey City schools and test scores have improved, but there has been no drastic turnaround in student performance. And the state is seen by many residents as little more than an occupying force.

The Department of Education is now running the state's three largest school districts, yet state officials are still without a plan to return the schools to local control, a detail that was not addressed in the legislation that gave the state authority to take over schools. And even those New Jersey officials involved with the original takeover in 1989 now acknowledge that the state was armed with more good intentions than practical strategy.

'A vague assumption'

"There was a vague assumption on our part that if we fixed the central office, and replaced the people who were there with good people, those good people would solve the problems of urban education," said Leo Klagholz, New Jersey's commissioner of education, who was the head of teacher certification for the state in 1989. "It turns out to be not that simple."

New Jersey was the first state to take over a school system after deciding that it was inept and corrupt. Twenty-one other states, including Maryland, have followed suit, but having seen New Jersey's model at work, they are shying away from taking control of all day-to-day operations. Instead, those states favor takeovers that give local mayors control of the school systems.

Recently, for example, Michigan moved to require Detroit's mayor to take over that school system. But while other states have traveled a different road, New Jersey officials still defend their all-or-nothing approach.

The state's record on its three takeovers Jersey City, Newark (in 1995) and Paterson (in 1991) was debated again in February after Beverly Hall, the state-appointed head of Newark's schools, announced she would leave to head Atlanta's schools.

Hall, Newark's only superintendent since the state takeover in 1995, had faced tremendous resistance from the teachers union, local residents and elected officials. And four years later, critics say the district's academic achievement has not met the state's own benchmarks.

Some improvements

Yet there have been improvements. In 1993, before the state took over, only about a quarter of Newark's 11th-graders passed the statewide High School Proficiency Test. Last year, 50 percent passed the math portion of the test, 61.9 percent passed the writing portion and 63.3 percent passed the reading portion, though the results fell short of the state's own target of 85 percent.

In an interview, Hall said she did not believe a takeover was the best way to fix a troubled school system, because local residents and officials did not feel they had much opportunity to affect decisions and therefore might not support changes.

"But when children's lives are at stake and I think education is that important when they are failing so drastically, then drastic actions are required," she said. "You have almost an obligation to take them over."

But some dispute whether a state must run the district itself to see results. Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington, a coalition of the country's 54 largest districts, said other states had learned that taking power from local officials was not the best way to make academic gains.

"Most states have resisted using that tool," he said. "They don't know what to do. Who in Albany knows what to do in New York City? If they knew what to do, I assume they would have told us by now."

Casserly said that other states had left control in the hands of local officials, usually the mayor. Supporters of this model point to Chicago, where the mayor was given control of the schools by the state Legislature in 1995. Test scores there improved enough to be cited by President Clinton in his State of the Union speech in January.

New Jersey can certainly claim victory in some areas. Political corruption and mismanagement in the takeover districts have been eradicated by most accounts, and neglected buildings have been spruced up.

But takeovers are not popular. Resentment over the state-appointed head of Jersey City's schools contributed to a bitter five-day teachers strike there last fall. And in Newark recently, Mayor Sharpe James had stinging words for Hall, accusing her of being a carpetbagger and alienating local residents.

And New Jersey's takeovers have not resulted in quick, drastic academic gains.

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