After More Than 20 Years, Newark to Regain Control of Its Schools

NEWARK — In 1995, when Marques-Aquil Lewis was in elementary school, the State of New Jersey seized control of the public schools here after a judge warned that “nepotism, cronyism and the like” had precipitated “abysmal” student performances and “failure on a very large scale.”

For more than 20 years, local administrators have had little leverage over the finances or operations of the state’s largest school district. Choices about curriculum and programs were made mostly by a state-appointed superintendent, often an outsider. The city could not override personnel decisions.

Now, Mr. Lewis’s 4-year-old son is in prekindergarten, and things are changing. With the district improving slowly but steadily in recent years, the state board of education is expected on Wednesday to approve a plan that would ultimately give Newark control again over its public schools with their almost $1 billion budget and 55,000 students.

“Our district has been through a lot of storms, and there were some people who jumped off the boat,” said Mr. Lewis, chairman of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board, an elected body that has little power under state control. “But there were some people who stayed on, and now everyone wants to come to Newark and be a part of history.”

Christopher D. Cerf, center, was brought in as superintendent of Newark Public Schools in 2015 by Gov. Chris Christie. Mayor Ras Baraka credited Mr. Cerf for being open-minded. “Sometimes you go to a church to infiltrate, and become a deacon,” he said.

CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

The vote comes just two months after the board approved a plan to return control to Jersey City, the state’s second-largest public school system, after almost three decades. And while two other cities — Paterson and Camden — remain under Trenton’s supervision, the 2017-18 school year represents a milestone in the protracted and contentious history of state control.

Newark’s schools have improved — the high school graduation rate is now 77 percent versus 54 percent in 1995; on state tests, the district now ranks in the top quarter of comparable urban districts; low-performing schools were closed while charter schools expanded. The district is retaining more of its best teachers, and fewer of its least effective ones.

But the decision to give authority back to the city is in many ways a recognition that state control is an idea whose time has passed. Around the country, 28 other states enacted similar policies, fueled by a desire to hold districts more accountable. Many of the districts taken over were in heavily minority low-income cities. At present, around 60 districts are under some form of state management, said Kenneth Wong, chairman of the department of education at Brown University.

When New Jersey took over the schools, it was thought of as an emergency intervention. In evaluating the legacy of state control, Paul L. Tractenberg, an emeritus professor of law at Rutgers University, said that the idea went “badly off the tracks” by failing to provide sufficient funding and turning into a “really endless state operation.”

“I’ve devoted my professional life to trying to improve urban education, so I’m the last person to say, ‘What a failure,’” said Mr. Tractenberg, who established the Education Law Center in 1973 to fight for more equitable funding for urban schools. “But I’m also a realist, so I’m not going to say we found a magic bullet and everything is fine now.”

Students at Technology High School in Newark on the first day of school. It has been more than 20 years since the city had authority over its schools. CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

Indeed, test scores and other metrics barely budged for years. Newark’s first state-appointed superintendent, Beverly Hall, a former New York City education official, clashed with parents and educators, and left the district in 1999 with a staggering deficit amid questions of fiscal mismanagement. Later, as superintendent of the Atlanta schools, she was indicted in a widespread cheating scandal, but died in 2015 awaiting trial.

Just as polarizing, if not more so, was Cami Anderson, a veteran of the New York City schools under former chancellor Joel I. Klein who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011. Her plan to reorganize the schools, which included closing low-performing ones and opening many charter schools, and creating an open enrollment system that did away with some neighborhood schools, played a role in the fractious 2014 Newark mayor’s race won by Ras J. Baraka, a former teacher and high school principal. She resigned the next year.

In 2015, Governor Christie tapped Christopher D. Cerf, a hard-charging former state education commissioner and yet another disciple of Mr. Klein’s, as the next superintendent. In an interview at City Hall, Mr. Baraka said that he had expected the latest outsider to be “very rigid” and “carry the governor’s water.”

But the two men instead forged an unexpectedly productive relationship. A new teachers’ union contract, signed in May, featured little of the rancor from years past, and Mr. Baraka has helped to defuse tensions between charter and traditional schools. Charter enrollment has tripled in the past five years and Ms. Anderson’s much maligned open enrollment plan has been modified with more community input.

In the interview Mr. Baraka credited Mr. Cerf for being open-minded. “Sometimes you go to a church to infiltrate, and become a deacon,” he said.