NJ Gov. Chris Christie announced last week that the state will take over Camden's long-troubled school system. The courageous move, the latest piece of Christie's impressive education-reform agenda, could signal a turnaround for one of the country's most dangerous and depressed cities.
Camden needs help: Of its 26 schools, 23 are in the lowest-performing 5 percent in the state. Less than 20 percent of fourth-graders are proficient in language arts; just 28 percent of 11th-graders are proficient in math. Its four-year high-school graduation rate was 49 percent in 2012, 37 points below the state average.
The return on investment is particularly poor because the district spends $23,709 per pupil - more than $5,700 above the state average.
To her credit, Camden Mayor Dana Redd welcomes the state's "partnership" in improving the city's schools: Since the status quo "is failing our kids," she said, "We cannot wait any longer." Redd is a pragmatic Democrat: last year, she joined Christie for the signing the Urban Hope Act, giving private nonprofits authority to build a dozen "renaissance" schools in Newark, Camden and Trenton.
These schools will be charter-like public schools with more flexibility in administration and finances; those in Camden will be operated by two top-performing charter networks: KIPP and Democracy Prep.
The state's plans for Camden aren't yet developed. Christie and Education Commissioner Chris Cerf declared that the state would work with the local school board, but choice and charters will be key components. "Renaissance [and] charter schools will certainly be a part of this mix, as they have . . . already," Christie said. "I don't see it as my job to keep students in the district against their will."
Of course, New Jersey took control of school districts in Newark (1995), Paterson (1991) and Jersey City (1989) - and not much improved. But Derrell Bradford, director of the reform advocacy group Better Education for Kids, notes, "This is Christie's first takeover. Not all takeovers are equal. And given the recent positive developments in the other state-led districts, I am cautiously optimistic about Camden."
Positive changes are afoot in Jersey's troubled cities, especially in Newark, where a new performance-based teachers' contract - aided by $100 million from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg - is hailed as a national model.
Newark's dynamic superintendent, Cami Anderson, is closing bad schools, hiring new principals and giving them greater autonomy and establishing a high school choice system. A new $150 million "Teachers Village" complex, with three new charters and rental apartments for teachers, is rising.
Stanford University's research team recently found that New Jersey charter schools posted "some of the largest learning gains we have seen to date." This, when Stanford had found disappointing results for charters elsewhere.
Newark's charter students stood out - posting gains roughly equivalent to spending an extra seven to nine months in school each year. Newark's successful charters include KIPP's TEAM schools, Uncommon Schools' North Star Academy, Robert Treat Academy and Gray Charter School.
Under Cerf's direction, New Jersey has gotten serious about charter authorization: only allowing groups with proven results (or well-designed plans) to open schools and closing those that don't perform. As he recently noted, closing bad charters "is precisely what the exchange of autonomy for accountability means."
Jersey is also leading on teacher accountability. Last year, a law passed with bipartisan support that evaluates teachers based on multiple measures and makes tenure harder to get and easier to lose. The state is expanding parental choice with a $2 million Opportunity Scholarship pilot and an interdistrict school choice program that gives students the chance to attend public schools outside their zoned districts.
In Camden the other day, Christie talked about education in a "compassionate conservative" way. "We cannot fail these children any longer," he said. "People gave me the chance to do this job. . . to take on the big challenges. . . When you take on big challenges you take the risk of failing. . .
"I don't want to look back on my time as governor and say. . . I should have done more for the people and the children, in particular of [Camden]. They will not be able to say that we didn't act."
Christie and his team deserve credit for tackling this challenge - and for moving the Garden State from a laggard to a leader in education reform.
Original Source: http://nypost.com/2013/04/06/christie-tackles-school-reform/