August 23, 2016

Is Local Control the Best Control? The Brick City Edition

By Bellwether

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The post below is by guest blogger, Derrell Bradford.

I spent my formative years in education reform working in Newark, N.J., the state’s largest school district with about 50,000 students total (including charter schools). Newark is home to one of the country’s highest performing charter sectors, with demand for the schools continuing to outpace supply.

Charters are not the only story in Newark—Superintendent Cerf continues his work steadily and aggressively as well—but they are a key theme in a larger Newark narrative. And that one is local control.

Trenton has controlled Newark since 1995 when the state took over all facets of the district’s operation in response to both deep academic failure and pervasive corruption. The 1994, 1,700 page takeover report noted that:

“Children in Newark public schools are victimized by school and district leaders who force them to endure degrading school environments that virtually ensure academic failure.”

”The first world is that of the children who are subjected to substandard facilities and poorly equipped classrooms and libraries…The second world is that of the board of education of Newark. The board’s world is comprised of the finer things in life, such as travel to Honolulu, St. Thomas and San Francisco, dinners at fine restaurants, new cars and flowers.”

To be sure, the state has two compelling interests in Newark’s public school system. The first being that it is constitutionally responsible for what happens there (the ability for districts to run local systems is actually delegated by the state as a practical concern). New Jersey’s numerous defenders of the status quo sing in unison that district-level failure is actually the state’s responsibility; roughly the equivalent of letting principals, teachers, administrators, and supers say, “We were just following orders.”

The second is that the state pays—in overwhelming measure—for Newark’s schools. New Jersey’s longstanding Abbott line of school finance equity cases means that for the upcoming school year, a projected $715 million dollars of the city’s approximately $1 billion education budget will come in the form of state aid, with the remainder coming from a variety of local and federal sources. I am not sure at what point local control is obviated by the state’s contribution to a district’s school system, but I am sure there is a point when it is. And if any district in America has crossed that threshold, it’s Newark.

That said, returning the district to local control is a political brass ring that glistens above the city. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who is notoriously anti-charter despite his recent joining with charter advocates on a “Unity Slate” for the city’s school board, will likely count a potential return to local control as one of his greatest accomplishments. In New Jersey’s dog-eat-dog political climate, being able to argue local sovereignty as the excuse to spend $700 million of someone else’s money is high art indeed.

But I am skeptical. To be clear, I’m unsure local control is the best thing for Newark’s families and taxpayers for a few reasons.

Local control is political control

I don’t think there is anything sacrosanct about elected school board governance, but I seem to be in the minority. Local school boards have done nothing in my mind but fracture the delivery of education in this country 15,000 ways and divide us by race, income, location and opportunity. The role of school board member requires little but ambition (school board races are frequently ladders to other offices). And the elections are routinely manipulated by those most resistant to change, chief among them teachers unions. In this, there seems to be the greatest misunderstanding of what local control should be versus what it is. What it should be is visionary and responsive. It often is, however, recalcitrant, risk-averse and dominated by special interests. Local control may sound great to Newark residents (and others across the country) but in practice it’s the kind of local governance they have the least control over and the least ability to change.

Real local control is household control

Newark already has a great deal of local control in the form of parent choice, which its families are using more and more frequently as the amount of it expands. Where a school board is subject to the slings and arrows of raucous public meetings, screamed diatribes, and other public shamings, Newark’s parents are more likely to act in the best interest of their child regardless of what the haters, papers or blogs say.

In 2015, 50 percent of the city’s K-8 applicants (via the city’s common enrollment process) chose North Star Academy, part of the Uncommon Schools network, as their preferred choice. Overall, charters made up seven of the eight most popular choices. And with 15,000 students in Newark charter schools—all of which enrolled during an extended period of state, not local, control—it’s tough to argue Newark parents aren’t, in large measure, in control already—and with more power than they ever had under an elected board. If there is something more democratic than this, I’m not sure what it is.

Isn’t it better now?

I once told a reporter that, after the state had gotten the books in order, what ensued in Newark was more a period of benign neglect than an intervention meant to level the playing field for kids, particularly those not fortunate enough to attend a charter, a magnet, or be connected enough to get into one of the schools or specialty programs for the city’s elites. I argued that Cami Anderson’s administration (with respect to Clifford Janey who did a few good things, and even Marion Bolden who simply did not have the political tools at her disposal to make anything substantive happen) was the first real instance of state intervention since the district lost local control. While all the prior eras had made the teachers unions in particular happy (a highly desirable outcome if you’re the governor), they had done little to move the needle for kids. Former superintendent Anderson’s wild ride is well known and documented, but it did kick off an era of actual change in the district that, for all intents and purposes, is sticking.

As Laura Waters wrote in the eponymous New Jersey blog, NJ Left Behind (a sharp and prescient confection for the reform and truth minded), things in Newark are on the uptick at last:

  • Among all Newark public schools, charter and traditional, achievement of African-American students is increasing, although charter school students are performing at a significantly higher level than district school students.

  • In 2006, about 4 percent of Newark students (charter and district) beat the NJ state average. In 2014, about 23 percent beat the NJ state average.

  • African-American students in both charter and district schools improved achievement from 2006-2014. In 2006, 19 percent beat the state average. In 2014 40 percent did.

Former Newark mayor Sharpe James once argued (and I will paraphrase) that “the state sucks at this so you might as will give control back to us”; a strong if cynical argument to be sure, but one that resonates with Newarkers desirous of the sovereignty implicit in local control.

Except now the state IS better…as are the households in command in Newark through school choice, and the duo is combining to drive significant improvement (though to be clear, much more remains to be done) across the Brick City. Much like Cynthia Tucker wrote recently, there is nothing inherently innovative about local control—in fact, I would argue it is the control that is the least innovative form of control possible. Is it really worth trading all the progress and improvement of recent years for a governance structure that last existed in Newark before the state opened its first charter school?

My gut says no.

Whether local control returns to Newark may be more a political matter (aspects of the change are already underway) than an educational one, which I guess is the point. It’s also the strongest affirmation of why the city’s charter sector has to continue to grow. Choice is the only hedge against concentrated power at the state or the local levels for that matter. At least one of the city’s current school board members—as the top vote getter in this spring’s elections—is a charter supporter, winning with 5,800 votes. But 15,000 folks voting with their feet—that’s progress you can believe in.

Derrell Bradford is the executive vice president at 50CAN, and the executive director of its New York branch, NYCAN. Derrell serves on several boards and leadership councils that focus on educational equity: Success Academy Charter Schools; The Partnership for Educational Justice; EdBuild; and The National Association of Charter School Authorizers Advisory Board, among others. Derrell is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in English. A native of Baltimore, he currently lives outside New York City and can be found riding his bike along the Hudson, rooting for Tottenham Hotspur (and Liverpool), photographing the city, and refusing to try new foods.

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