Feds Chastise Christie Administration for Ignoring Its Own Rules in Newark

As if Newark schools didn’t provide enough drama for the Christie administration lately, the state has received a rebuke from the U.S. Department of Education as to how it has carried out its school monitoring and improvement efforts in the district.

The federal department issued a letter last week, affirming a complaint filed by the Education Law Center that contended New Jersey had not followed its own protocol in the state-run Newark district, as set in an accountability system approved by the feds.

The letter came as the district is in turmoil, with state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson announcing this week that she would be stepping down and former state Commissioner Chris Cerf being named to succeed her.

The federal letter, sent to state Education Commissioner David Hespe, did not issue any penalties but it nonetheless gives the administration one more weighty task to deal with in the upcoming transition.

Specifically, the feds said the state had agreed to a statewide system of regional offices of experts to assist the its lowest-performing schools, 28 of them in Newark -- or almost half of the district’s schools.

But instead, Newark under Anderson had gone off on its own sometimes-controversial remedial actions that left out the state centers entirely, the letter read. Those plans included designated ”renew schools,” where instruction was extended and principals given extra powers for hiring.

Whatever the merits of the new approach, the letter from acting Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Heather Rieman said the state had not followed in Newark the path it had committed to statewide in its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“There is no indication that Commissioner Hespe or the [regional centers] carried out those responsibilities in Newark Public Schools,” read the June 19 letter.

Still, there were no penalties attached to the letter, and the Christie administration said it expected the federal government’s full backing of the state’s revised approach in Newark and other state-operated districts.

The state now has an application before the federal government to revise its accountability system, including a separate set of rules for state-operated districts like Newark. That application remains pending.

“We worked through all the complicated issues with the [federal department], and we appreciate their thorough review,” said a statement from David Saenz, a spokesman for Hespe.

A request for comment from the U.S Department of Education to verify the state’s claims were not returned.

Reiman, the assistant secretary, also provided some relief for the state, saying in the letter that the department would be open to alternative approaches as it considered the next waiver application, “provided its system overall is sufficiently robust.”

Either way, the timing of the federal letter was notable, coming as it did with Newark at a crossroads. Adding to the drama is the fact that Cerf was commissioner when the contested accountability system was put in place -- and Newark pursued its own path.

“These schools in Newark lost three years of real, serious help,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, the Newark-based group that has led the Abbott v. Burke school-equity litigation.

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