How Newark schools will look with a more democratic concept of local control | Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
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on September 01, 2015


By Junius Williams

In 1982, Newark voters decided through referendum that they wanted an elected school board rather than a board appointed by the mayor. In the beginning years, there was a lively debate about the candidates, and heightened consciousness about issues, as people participated in determining who would sit on the school board.

But at some point, interest groups who were well organized and more experienced with the political process dominated the school board elections and substituted their collective will for that of ordinary working people. As a consequence, schools collectively became less important as centers of learning, and more important as a source of jobs and contracts.

In 1995, the state of New Jersey took over the governance of the school district. Parent and community engagement in schools was silenced even more, except for occasional outcries of anger and frustration.

In 1995, the state of New Jersey took over the governance of the school district. Parent and community engagement in schools was silenced even more, except for occasional outcries of anger and frustration.

The New Jersey Supreme Court decisions under the famous case of Abbott vs. Burke gave some sense of relief to the despair in classrooms by requiring more resources for Newark, new standards for school reform and more parent engagement. But in 2008 when the Abbott remedies were silenced by the state government, the stage was set for a new definition of school reform where charter schools became a primary engine of change, and made the issue of local control an even more complex issue.

So in 2015, when Mayor Ras Baraka and superintendent Chris Cerf declare that Newark should regain local control, what does this really mean, since approximately 28 percent of the district's 49,853 children attend charter schools which are publically funded and privately governed; and the remaining 72 percent require more resources and creative teaching methodologies because they contain most of the children who are educationally disadvantaged? Given the history of local control, state takeover and school governance split between charters and regular schools, how to we get to the new frontier?

Local control must begin from the bottom up and become a model for cooperation amongst the prevailing interest groups in the Newark Public Schools.

Strong PTAs must be developed throughout the district, with parents actually engaged in school governance. An old Abbott concept should be revived called the School Management Team. SMTs, led by the principal who has the final say, should include parents, community representatives, teachers, support staff and (older) students. SMTs have three purposes: planning, budgeting, and evaluation, all based on the particular needs of the individual schools. This model is similar to the one required in cities like Chicago (Local School Councils).

Governance in a shared and participatory manner will insure the beginning of a different conversation about education in Newark, one that is vitally necessary, with all stakeholders learning to listen and respect one another. It offers a way for those involved with charter schools and regular schools to share information and practice across a minefield now full of suspicion; and it will usher in a healing process, so long as parents, community people, teachers, administrators and students feel vital and appreciated in the process. Parents will be able to learn to appreciate schools, and ask questions and expect honest answers. They will once again feel as though they have a stake in schools, for the sake of their children and themselves.

Local Control needs a growing period, and it will be most effective if it comes from the bottom and not the top. People have to get used to the idea of being included. This requires a safe space for educators, parents and community members to be able to come up with ideas, and experiment with new education solutions. People have to practice formulating win-win solutions for all students with a fundamental guarantee of fair allocation of resources by the state, for all schools.

Unfortunately none of these proposals has ever been universally adopted, but they now offer the promise of a more democratic concept of local control, than just the more familiar elected and appointed school board. With a shared governance model as outlined, the elected school board will thrive, with well-informed voters as partners in the education of children, aware of the importance of schools, and able to withstand those who would use the districts resources for their own selfish ends.

Junius Williams is the author of "Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Back Power" (North Atlantic Books, 2014), and director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers Newark.

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