Newark schools have a record that "demonstrates failure," the state said in a court motion filed in January. The district's dropout rate is "unacceptably high," its test scores "remain abysmally low," and many administrators are "woefully unprepared for their positions."
But the state has had control of the district - including its programming, budget, and administration - for 18 years. Poor performance led to the state's takeover from the local school board, and now the state says continued poor performance justifies a longer tenure of state authority in Newark schools.
The state is fighting a legal challenge from the local school board that seeks to regain control of Newark schools.
"The state's brief reads like the most damning indictment of state control you could ever find, based on how bad the Newark schools are performing," said Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers-Newark law professor and codirector of the Institute on Education Law and Policy. "It's like a colossal Catch-22: 'The worse we [the state] have done in operating a district, the longer we should continue operating it.' "
With the state now taking control of the troubled Camden School District, critics of the move point to three North Jersey school districts that remain among the worst performers despite decades of state intervention: Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City.
The state took over Paterson's schools in 1991, Jersey City's in 1989, and Newark's in 1995.
Tests have changed too much over the years to directly compare student performance before and after the state takeovers, said Tractenberg, who has been commissioned by the state Department of Education in the past to study the effectiveness of state intervention and reform.
But all three districts, like Camden, have performed poorly overall.
Gov. Christie and state education authorities say they remain optimistic that state intervention in school districts can work, and Christie has used his power to spark major changes in Newark since he took office in 2010.
Last fall, Newark teachers ratified a three-year contract that includes money for performance bonuses, the first contract of its kind in the state. The contract was funded in part by $50 million of the $100 million grant given to Newark schools by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.
Jersey City school board officials, meanwhile, have regained some local control and last summer appointed a new superintendent for the first time since the takeover.
Arcelio Aponte, president of the state School Board of Education, which serves as a liaison between the state Department of Education and local school boards, said that the state had succeeded in improving some of the administrative processes in the districts, including in Paterson.
Still, the state has failed to make great strides at any of the schools with regard to graduation rates and test performance.
Asked how Jersey City schools had performed after two decades under state rule, Paula Christen, a district spokeswoman said: "It's up and down."
"Jersey City is really two cities. We have our rich waterfront and our poor inner city," said Christen, who has worked for 23 years in the district. Many of the problems in the poorer districts seem to remain, regardless of who's in charge.
But Christen said that she believed the Jersey City district was better for having had help from the state and that Camden school officials might eventually feel the same way.
"Can it get any worse down there?" she said. "I'm sure they'll improve it. The state will be monitoring them, and they'll have to step up to the plate."
Local school board members in Paterson and Newark, who have only an advisory role, feel quite differently.
Both boards are challenging the state in court to regain control of their schools. Earlier this month, the two boards held a joint public meeting to protest longtime state control.
"We've had several different curriculums, millions of dollars spent on 'consultants' to change teacher pedagogy, and several superintendents that haven't been able to get the job done either," said Christopher Irving, president of Paterson's advisory school board. "Even [the state of] New Jersey can't do it by themselves. There has to be a joint effort."
Irving, 30, is a graduate of Paterson public schools, which have been state-run for 22 years.
It was not until 2007 that the state adopted an evaluation process that measured school district performance with the goal of returning control to local officials.
But even those evaluations have had differing interpretations.
Newark schools scored 80 percent or above in four of the five categories in 2011, which should have qualified the local board to begin regaining some home rule.
But Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said graduation rates and test scores, which are factored into the evaluation, remained too low. The state conducted a second round of evaluations, in 2012, under which Newark's ratings dropped by about half in three of the five areas where the district had previously scored high.
"How do you make sense of those evaluations?" Tractenberg said. "Either the high numbers were inadequate or bogus, the lower numbers were inadequate or bogus, or there's been a dramatic deterioration in the quality of education under the new superintendent, who was appointed by the state."
The Education Law Center, a Newark nonprofit agency that Tractenberg helped form 40 years ago to help urban school districts in court, challenged the state's decision in Appellate Court. In January, the state filed its response, arguing that Newark schools remain in a terrible state.
"It's a little like Alice in Wonderland, with the state evaluating itself, finding its performance woefully inadequate and then moving to intervene in Camden as if it could do something better there," Tractenberg said.
Jonathan Hodges, who has served on the Paterson advisory school board since 2002, said he was pessimistic that additional state intervention would help Camden public schools.
"People in Camden should not view this as a good thing," he said. "Once they get ahold of you, they do not intend to let you go."
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