How can we save our failing schools? When is it appropriate for the state to step in, and when are schools ready to be returned to local control? How can we ensure that students' education doesn't suffer during these transitions?
Under a $225,000 contract with the New Jersey Department of Education, an interdisciplinary team from Rutgers–Newark carried out a two-year study of these questions. The work was completed under the aegis of the Institute on Education Law and Policy and the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies. Its recommendations were accepted by Commissioner William Librera and the New Jersey Board of Education, and should be influential in the ongoing reform of the takeover process. Here are some of the team's findings:
By Paul Tractenberg
Alfred C. Clapp Public Service Professor and director of the Institute on Education Law and Policy, School of Law–Newark
In New Jersey, state takeover of local school districts has many legal aspects, some of constitutional dimension. The most fundamental one relates to the state constitution's mandate that all students be provided with a "thorough and efficient" (T&E) education, ultimately a state responsibility. If local districts are not providing their students with a T&E education, the state must act, initially by requiring and assisting districts to do better. But if those efforts fail, the state may have to assume direct responsibility for operating the schools — "state takeover."
Many states have similar constitutional imperatives, leading to some form of state takeover. But New Jersey has another important and related set of constitutional mandates resulting from the Abbott vs. Burke litigation. The state must ensure that the 30 poor urban districts labeled "Abbott districts" satisfy a special, highly particularized set of educational requirements. These special requirements take into account the educational disadvantages of the Abbott districts' students and limited local resources. The Abbott mandates constitute a substantial overlay, defining T&E education more expansively than for New Jersey's other school districts and affecting the state's oversight responsibilities, including state takeover.
Another legal aspect is statutory rather than constitutional, involving both federal and state legislation. At the federal level, the new No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 will have substantial implications for failing schools and districts, but there is no consensus yet about how those will play out. Our study focused on the takeover statute at the state level because we considered it to be seriously flawed, in many respects, compared with national "best practices." Many of our recommendations relate to statutory modifications, including:
Increasing flexibility regarding the form and extent of takeover and re-establishment of local control
Focusing on local capacity as a decisive factor in all aspects of school takeover
Recasting the state's role to emphasize technical assistance
Requiring establishment of clear and specific benchmarks against which districts are regularly measured before and during state intervention
Increasing flexibility regarding composition and operation of the local board of education
Enhancing school ethics requirements
Using state operation to develop urban education models.
A sociological perspective
By Alan R. Sadovnik
Chair, department of education and academic foundations
Our study of New Jersey's takeover districts has been one of the most satisfying research experiences of my academic career. Using multiple lenses, our team was able to understand school processes within the broadest contexts of urban life.
My role involved two interrelated parts: first, an analysis of student performance in Jersey City, Paterson and Newark under state control; and second, an examination of best practices in urban education and how to implement them in the takeover districts to improve student achievement and close the achievement gap between Abbott and non-Abbott districts.
Although most researchers studying educational inequality believe that factors outside of schools are extremely important, our studies point to a number of factors within the school essential for improvement. At the district level these include:
Vision and leadership
Knowledge or access to knowledge
Interpreting and using data
Building teacher knowledge and skills
Aligning curriculum and instruction
Promoting family, community and school relationships.
At the school level, the key components of school quality include:
Teacher quality and experience and long-term professional development
School context, including effective leadership, teacher-community collaboration, a safe and orderly environment, and an academic environment dedicated to student achievement.
In addition to these district and school factors, community and economic forces are also essential for improving urban schools. Urban students must internalize the belief that school success will lead to success in life and that high achievement will result in college graduation and/or school-to-work programs with real-life payoffs.
Our examination of student achievement in the takeover districts revealed significant improvement in Jersey City and Paterson, especially over the past three years, with Newark exhibiting a small overall improvement. Based upon these data, our report recommends a number of strategies to help districts build the local capacity to implement the components of successful schools that will be required for return to local control. To help these districts accomplish this, we recommend that the state Department of Education create collaborative, comprehensive and systematic districtwide plans to improve student achievement.
Applying municipal strategies
By Marc Holzer and Gerald J. Miller
Professors of public administration
Returning state-takeover school districts to local control has proven problematic, both here in New Jersey and elsewhere. New approaches are clearly needed. Our research involved finding innovative methods for improving schools that went beyond the traditional educational "box." We looked specifically at what could be learned from the measurable success in various municipal takeovers and whether these strategies could be adapted to failing school districts.
A close look at municipal takeovers revealed financial, managerial and political lessons, all of which can be applied to school district takeovers. State takeovers of municipalities were frequently triggered by fiscal distress. Successful remedies incorporated financial and managerial best practices, such as management cutbacks, professionalization and capacity building. State direction and financial assistance also helped restore credit ratings.
In some situations, "crisis regimes" were imposed by means of powerful oversight bodies. In addition, local elections were sometimes suspended to help officials reverse profligate policies without the fear of political fallout. These strategies often corrected enough problems to enable the localities to become fiscally healthy. Similar management practices can be incorporated in state-takeover school districts, many of which are suffering from fiscal distress and poor performance.
Societal issues such as economic decline and governmental corruption were much harder to remedy at the municipal level. The same holds true for failing school districts where the greater community is often suffering from a high level of poverty, high rates of unemployment and few economic prospects. In addition, these school districts can be rife with corruption. In the case of municipalities, states have successfully intervened with economic development programs and large amounts of continuing state financial aid. States also used the threat of regionalization with some success. Using these same economic development strategies and potentially regionalizing portions of the school districts could be useful tactics.
Finally, civic engagement has proven to be a significant instrument for creating enduring reform for takeover municipalities. In one such city, state legislation guided the fiscal relief process through the creation of a charter development board. The board's membership reflected the constituencies within the community and made decisions by consensus. In school takeover districts, community involvement in the form of a voluntary board could have similar results by addressing some of the communitywide issues facing these school districts and becoming an avenue for vigorous local involvement.