State control of education. New Jersey law allows takeover of troubled schools

IT'S the education equivalent of the death penalty. ``You have it on the books but hope you never have to take someone to the gas chamber,'' says Robert Boose of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

He's talking about a school intervention law recently passed by the New Jersey Legislature that permits state education officials to take control of an entire school district, replacing the locally elected school board, the superintendent, and central office staff, as well as building principals.

Hailed within and without the state as the most sweeping of its kind, the measure took two years of intensive lobbying and numerous compromises after its original proposal by Gov. Thomas H. Kean to become law. The state will use this authority - popularly known as the ``academic bankruptcy'' bill - only after a series of evaluations and court proceedings declare a given school system irrevocably deficient.

The effort by New Jersey comes at a critical time about five years into a nationwide effort at reforming schools as more and more parents, policymakers, and educators are looking for results, especially in urban schools.

``We are going to educate all our children,'' says New Jersey Commissioner of Education Saul Cooperman. ``We have to hold leadership accountable.'' With minority students making up 33 percent of the students in New Jersey and the number rising to 40 percent at the turn of the century, the state can't sit back, ``letting words fall where they may with the local district,'' and allowing another generation of students to be poorly educated, he says.

Jersey City is No. 1 on the list of cities for a possible takeover, Commissioner Cooperman says. He adds that a comprehensive compliance intervention report advising him whether to begin court proceedings for the takeover will be in his hands by the middle of March. After nearly 10 years of back-and-forth negotiations and assessments with the state, he says the city is still not doing its job. ``That's a generation of students,'' he says.

Every state has something on the books enabling it to move in if fiscal problems, or fiscal mismanagement, occur, says Chris Pipho, state policy analyst of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina have passed versions of such a measure in the last few years, he says, but New Jersey appears to have extended the area of state accountability. No state has ever completely taken over a failing urban district, he says.

Why the bill? And why New Jersey?

There is a constitutional provision for the state to provide a thorough, competent, and free public education for each child, says Richard Mills, special assistant to the governor for education. ``But there remain a handful of districts that cannot or will not do that,'' he says. ``At some point you have to say someone has to speak for the child - if the local board hasn't, if the school administration hasn't - the governor has decided he will through this bill.''

``We didn't need it any more or any less than any other urban state,'' says Walter McCarroll, assistant commissioner in the New Jersey Department of Education. But since New Jersey is the most densely populated state, and urban areas are where the greatest problems are in schools, it was evident that so drastic a measure was ``amenable, if necessary,'' he says.

``In the evolution of new education reforms over the last five years, the [New Jersey] Legislature is ahead of other states,'' Mr. Boose says.

His organization initially opposed the governor's bill, but through give-and-take, refinement of the original bill, and finally, the clear determination of the governor to have such a bill, the state school boards association endorsed it and pushed for passage, he says.

Not everyone thinks it doable.

As a symbol of making dramatic change, this bill may turn out to be as effective as the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction bill - ``no reduction,'' says Ray Peterson of the New Jersey Federation of Teachers, which opposed the bill.

``We don't believe the state has all the answers,'' he says. ``We believe they are sincere, but they still won't get at the root causes.'' The local level is best suited to that, he says. But the rival teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association, supports the bill.

``What happens if the state doesn't declare victory after it takes over a system?'' Mr. Peterson asks. There will still be high student turnover, a high crime rate in the community, a high dropout rate, a high incidence of drug usage. Public relations won't solve these problems, he says. The state has not fully funded schools now, he says, even though court cases have supposedly eliminated funding disparities between districts in the state. ``Maybe this is just a smoke screen to cover that fact,'' he adds.

What does the law allow?

For the state to take over one of its 611 districts, a composite of problems - a high dropout rate, low staff attendance, cronyism in teacher and administrator appointments, malfeasance in fiscal matters - would have to exist.

Once a district fails to pass the final stage of monitoring, and after a determination by the courts (to be completed in no more than six months as spelled out by the law), the commissioner and State Board of Education would automatically become the chief operating officials of the district for a minimum of five years. These same state officials would disband the local school board and appoint alternative members, who would hold only advisory roles.

State officials would then be free, again after due-process hearings for dismissal, to replace superintendents and other personnel.

One compromise struck as the bill neared passage was that even in the final stages of evaluation a district could get additional state funds for improvements - if the commissioner of education determined that the district's proposals for reform could not be financed under its current operating budget.

One reason for keeping a figurehead school board in place is to preserve within the community some institutional memory on how to govern its own schools, says Boose. Then, if and when the state returns running the schools to local officials, elections can be held with credible candidates, he says.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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