Newark Mayor Cory Booker's perceived reluctance to assume more authority for the schools also has been a source of contention, as the NJ Spotlight recently reported from a community forum:
"You should have blasted (New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf) and said we should get back that local control," said Angel Plaza, the student representative on the local school board. "I would have thought you would take the mantle and tell him we deserved it. It was a slap in the face to Newark students, all of us. For 18 years, the state has controlled us, and we're the dumb ones?"
Booker responded that "I support local control, and I have supported it consistently," NJ Spotlight reported. "But until that happens, I'm going to support our kids and our schools right now."
In some instances, control over the local schools has been put in the hands of the mayor -- Boston and New York City are some prominent examples. Again, results have been mixed depending on the measures used to judge the experiment's success. (For more this issue, including a new report funded by the Broad Foundation, check out the L.A. Schools Report blog.)
The motivators for a state takeover of a school district typically fall into two categories - financial bankruptcy and academic bankruptcy. The first is relatively easy to define: Your liabilities outstrip your ability to pay. There's also a clear goal: a balanced budget and paying off debts. Academic bankruptcy, however, is more difficult to define -- and to solve.
Mike Griffith, a consultant who works with the Education Commission of the States, said he recently struggled to help the Michigan Legislature come up with a definition of academic bankruptcy for Detroit.
"Every definition we came up with put five or six other districts in that category," Griffith told me. "You can talk about graduation rates, dropout rates, test scores -- but what's the cutoff line?"
Once the definition is put in place, the larger problem of how to fix the schools still looms. States have to find the right leader to take charge, decide where to focus resources and reform efforts, and develop a timeline for expectations. There needs to be an exit strategy as well, Griffith said. Too often there isn't one, which has been the case in New Jersey, Griffith said. Unlike exiting financial bankruptcy -- the debts have been paid, the books have been balanced - determining when schools are ready to be returned to local control involves much murkier waters.
"It takes years and years for schools to get back on track, which is one thing people acknowledge," Griffith said. "What happens when the state is done taking over?"
What would takeovers in district like Camden, Cleveland, and Prince George's County mean to the daily experience of students? Would they have more effective teachers, or more instructional time? Would there be opportunities for local input in making those decisions, if not outright control? Those are just some of the concerns local families and community leaders are waiting to have addressed. And here's where we find the tension at the heart of efforts to make schools a better place to learn: It's not just a question of who's in charge but what they do with that authority once they have it.
This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.