Democrats want to end ‘failed’ state school takeovers, but Christie threatens veto
Democratic lawmakers representing Jersey City, Newark and Paterson say it's time to end the decades-long state rule over the school districts in their cities.
It’s unclear whether their proposal will be posted for a vote by legislative leaders – but if it is, it had better achieve a bipartisan, veto-proof majority because Gov. Chris Christie said he’ll veto the bill.
“Because the only reason those schools districts are state-run school districts is because they’ve been abject failures for the people who live there. That’s the only reason,” Christie said Tuesday. “The state doesn’t take them over because, like, we’ve got nothing better to do.”
Lawmakers at a Statehouse news conference said that New Jersey has accomplished little despite running the schools for the last 27 years in Jersey City, 25 years in Paterson and 20 years in Newark. They complained of a lack of accountability and said local residents and officials could do better.
“Newark has one of the largest, if not the largest, school budget in the state of New Jersey, and if you look at the outcomes for the students, it is not reflective of the money that is being spent,” said Assemblywoman Grace Spencer, D-Essex.
“We have seen nothing but successive administrations of state-appointed superintendents and leadership that have done a worse job in fiscal management, educational outcomes and support for teachers and school districts,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, D-Essex. “Instead of moving these districts forward, state intervention has made these districts regress.”
“This is a failed, failed process when you talk about state takeover districts,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic. “And if I’m the governor and if I’m the administration, this is something I would want out of my hands. I think you give it back to local control.”
That’s not how Christie sees it. Speaking at a news conference in Englewood, the governor said many urban school districts care more about the teachers’ unions than about local families, and he blasted politicians who oppose his education reform priorities such as charter schools.
“I have no sympathy at all for urban leaders who continue to sell their constituents down the river because the NJEA writes them checks and that they’re scared to death of these people,” Christie said.
“It’s an outrage. And I am sickened by the fact that they’re down there playing the theater they’re playing down in Trenton. But I shouldn’t – believe me, I’m not the least bit surprised. Not the least bit surprised. It’s the same stupid show day after day after day,” said Christie, drawing a parallel between the takeover bill and standoffs with Democrats about Atlantic City and transportation funding.
School takeovers are ineffectual and obsolete given new oversight tools, said Sharon Krengel, policy and outreach coordinator for the Education Law Center. She said the law was not intended to be used as a vehicle for implementing the state’s reform experiments.
“Rather it was intended to allow the state to intervene and fix identified problems and exit as quickly as possible,” Krengel said.
The proposed bill, A3637, would eliminate full and partial state takeovers of local school districts and return full control to municipalities within one year.
The school districts currently subject to state takeovers have gotten back some autonomy.
Paterson regained control over finances and personnel in February, for instance, though the state controls its instruction. The local district took back control of local operations in 2014.
Jersey City took back its personnel and operations in October, and had already taken back control of its governance and finance, but the state still controls its instruction.
Last June, the state set in motion a plan to return control of Newark schools back to local officials. It included the creation of a Newark Educational Success Board that would set out timelines and benchmarks, but Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker, D-Essex, said an end to the takeovers would be preferable.
“I see it as giving the people back their rights because every time we get to the benchmarks, we’re there, and they change the rules," Tucker said. "It’s time to stop changing the rules, and let’s play on the same level.”
The state also took over the Camden schools in 2013.
The financial situation in the Paterson schools is especially troublesome. Wimberly said it faces a projected deficit of $180 million over the next five years, and lawmakers said the district has laid off around 600 teachers in recent years with more layoffs to come.