Newark students will not have to meet state standards for academic performance before local control is returned, the Christie-appointed schools superintendent told a school board meeting Tuesday night.
Superintendent Christopher Cerf–who, as state education commissioner in 2013, refused to return state control to the city’s schools because of the district’s failure to meet student performance standards–now says his successor won’t do the same thing. It’s apparently a done deal between Mayor Ras Baraka and Gov. Chris Christie.
Cerf, the superintendent and former commissioner, said at the school board meeting he was confident the Newark school district would pass all standards needed for a return of local autonomy but one, student performance–and, hey no problem, because he and state education Commissioner David Hespe will work that one out.
Hespe and Cerf can work it out through what’s called “an equivalency waiver,” Cerf said. That refers to the discretionary power of the state education commissioner to ignore state regulations in response to an application from a school district. Cerf is going to make that application, he said, and added:
“We have every reason to believe our application will be granted,” Cerf said.
The one standard the district will not meet deals with student scores on statewide tests, attendance figures, and graduation rates–rolled up in one category called “program and instruction.”
Although, in 2013, Cerf–as the state’s education commissioner–cited that category to deny a return to local control, he now believes the standard can be swept aside in an equivalency waiver application. Cerf even dismissed some of these standards as “outmoded” and, therefore, irrelevant to the Newark’s effort to regain local control.
What is tragically ironic about Cerf’s prediction–and he is not stupid enough to make a prediction without knowing it will pan out–is that, after more than 20 years of state operations, the students of Newark are really no better off academically than they were when the state took over in 1995.
Test scores are still abysmally now. Attendance figures have fallen through the floor since Cami Anderson fired all the attendance officers, and graduation rates are pretty much unchanged. To add insult to the injury, Cerf backed Hespe’s recent decision, overturning an administrative law judge, that ruled Newark doesn’t need attendance counselors.
And missing from all of this is the so-called “Newark Educational Success Board” (NESB)–established by the Christie-Baraka deal–that was supposed to hold public hearings and produce a “road map” to local control that reflected the community’s wishes. It held only one public meeting–last September–and has said nothing since. All it managed to do was quiet the community leaders–like Grace Sergio, Mary Bennett, and Jose Leonardo–who once led the battle for the children against state control.
Not once during the lengthy discussion of how Christopher Cerf would bring back local control was the Newark Educational Success Board or any of its members mentioned.
Student academics and community input? None of that seems to matter to Cerf or even the board that conducted Tuesday night’s meeting as if the panel members and Cerf were best friends forever. Repeatedly, the schools chief and members of the board who once wanted him fired exchanged compliments and praised each other for the good work everyone did. Board president Antoinette Baskerville, who once was a fiery advocate for the kids, railed against “negative stereotypes” about the district and the whole atmosphere was captured by this comment from Cerf:
“There is a tremendous amount of wonderful things happening in the Newark schools and we are absolutely committed to getting the good news out,” said Cerf.
As if poor scores and poisoned water were public relations problems, not tragedies foisted on children.
The only exception was newly elected board member Leah Owens who blamed the poor performance of students on the state administration, responded to the complaints of a parent of a special needs child by blaming the growth of charter schools for the growing percentage of special needs students in public schools, and ripped apart the budget deal reached among Cerf, Baskerville and the mayor:
“We can no longer afford to write budgets based on gaps in funding,” she said.
Her comments were reminiscent of what was said by David Sciarra, the head of the Educatin Law Center, when he criticized then state education Commissioner Cerf for refusing to return local control because of poor student performance:
“The very low grad rates and test scores that Cerf cited in his letter is an indictment on his and his predecessors failure to make the solid improvements in educational performance that state takeover was intended to bring about.”
The indictment still stands. The budget is not adequate to improve student performance, no matter how much it might give to the South Ward community Education Project. The school board passed a budget despite a hole of nearly $10 million based on a promise that Baraka would find the money by July 1.
So, when state control is returned to Newark–probably just as Christie leaves office in January, 2018–the students will not have the resources they need to meet the statewide standards. Won’t have attendance counselors. Won’t have the experienced teachers essential to academic performance. But will have vastly expanded charters that will drain even more resources from the public schools.
And, for what it’s then worth, the state will relinquish its control just in time for Baraka to brag about it when he runs for re-election in 2018.
It’s obvious apathy has gripped what was once a community determined to make things better for the children–a community that once found its voice in the school board. Most of the seats in the audience were empty. Of the 36 people who signed up to speak, only seven actually spoke. For the first time in years, not one student representative showed up to speak.