REYES: State takeovers lead to ineffective outcomes


Opinions Column: Concrete Jungle Gym


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What do you do about underperforming or poorly managed public school districts? How do you ensure the educational and developmental needs of children are being met? In an attempt to hold school districts accountable for fiscal problems, the 1987 N.J. state takeover law was enacted, granting the state government power to authorize partial or full intervention of local public school districts in distressed situations. N.J.'s state takeover law was the first of its kind — 28 states have followed suit with similar bills.

Since the passage of this bill during the administration of Gov. Thomas Kean (R-N.J.), the state has had partial or full control of local school governance, personnel, instruction, operations and fiscal management in Jersey City (1989), Paterson (1991), Newark (1995) and Camden (2013), all of which are high-poverty, majority-minority communities. The move toward state takeover of troubled schools initially focused on alleged corruption and mismanagement in these districts, but these issues coincided with some of the lowest levels of school and student performance measures in the state. Since then, student performance — especially high school graduation rates and standardized test scores — has been at the center of state takeover decisions across the country.

A major concern is the state's immense authority to appoint a superintendent and remove the governing powers of the elected school board, which suppresses the voices of the community. Moreover, the N.J. state takeover law never specified a clear exit strategy and transfer of power process when a school district is determined to be apt to regain full control. Almost three decades after its signing, Jersey City and Paterson have reclaimed nearly full control of its school system, yet these districts have been left in financial distress. Fundamentally, state takeovers signal a serious problem that undermines democratic participation, collective efficacy and our children's ability to thrive in their communities. With all the murkiness and conflict involved with this extremely paternalistic approach to improving urban schools, a crucial question comes to mind: “Are students in the state-controlled districts improving?”

First, state takeovers have been proven to be ineffectual in boosting educational outcomes. When compared to other locally governed, high-poverty districts like Passaic, Elizabeth and New Brunswick, student performance measures in state-controlled districts are among the lowest. These issues could have been at least partly addressed by the State Supreme Court's landmark school equity case Abbott v. Burke, which ruled that all children have the right to a “thorough and efficient” (T&E) education. However, the school funding formula developed to meet this constitutional requirement has never been fully funded, hurting school districts' ability to actualize substantive change for their students. Second, district budgets have not been stabilized. State-controlled districts like Newark continue to suffer year to year with “severe and glaring reductions in essential teachers, support staff and other resources necessary for a T&E education.” The Paterson Board of Education was recently granted control over the district's operations, but the state left the district with a huge $45 million budget shortfall that puts schools in jeopardy of closure and teachers at risk of layoffs. The state used fiscal and budgetary mismanagement as the basis for intervening and removing local control in these communities yet has left them in worse shape than before.

Furthermore, state takeovers compound these negative outcomes by effectively disenfranchising parents and community members from the operation and governance of their neighborhood schools. State takeovers happen almost exclusively in African American and Latino school districts — the same communities that have experienced underinvestment in their public schools and persistent attacks on property rights, agency and self-determination. Over 95 percent of U.S. school districts are run by locally elected school boards, serving as an integral opportunity for residents to engage in the democratic process. Through a participatory process that allows for everyone's voices to be heard equally, the community's needs can be met. However, poor black and brown communities continue to be blamed for the economic inequality and institutional racism and segregation that produces poor outcomes for their children. “Urban school failure” is blamed on students, families, teachers, administrators and local control itself, resulting in the takeover of governance and decision-making by a politically-motivated state government set against meaningful investment in urban communities.

Moving forward, it is important to highlight that poverty matters and that systemic racism exists especially in the intersection of urban community development and public schools. These communities need targeted, substantive investments in schools, good jobs, health and neighborhood revitalization: State takeovers are subverting our ability to effect positive change for our children. A bill eliminating state intervention was introduced earlier this year — urge your legislators to approve the bill and stand up for NJ's kids — all of them.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, "Concrete Jungle Gym," runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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Thalya Reyes

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