That level of state involvement has made the 39,000-student district an attractive laboratory for Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican seen as a national leader on education reform, and for prominent donors, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who have pledged $148 million to remake this city’s failing schools.
But the influx of money, and the attendant national spotlight, has galvanized a growing movement of parents, educators and elected officials who want the schools returned to local control 16 years after they were taken over amid low test scores, crumbling buildings and charges of mismanagement.
These critics say that the state has unilaterally imposed a controversial agenda — replacing principals, opening new schools, placing charter schools inside district buildings — dreamed up by outsiders and consultants who do not understand the needs of their children, and that there is not enough opportunity for input by parents and community-based advocates.
“It just seems like a hostile takeover because our voices are not being heard,” said Leah Owens, 29, the founder of Teachers as Leaders in Newark, which has helped collect hundreds of signatures in support of local control. “There are so many new things happening, it’s like the idea is just throw it all against a wall and see what sticks.”
Newark’s school board, which is elected but serves an advisory role, petitioned a state appellate court in August to give it the reins of most day-to-day operations, and a coalition of community organizations and residents represented by the Education Law Center, an advocacy group, followed with a similar lawsuit. This fall, the coalition has lobbied for local control at community meetings, started petition drives at schools, unleashed e-mail campaigns on state officials, and staged a rally that united even political adversaries.
“What we have in Newark is taxation without representation,” said State Senator Ronald L. Rice, one of nearly 300 people who attended the rally last month.
But Mr. Christie has ruled out a return to local control anytime soon, and his acting education commissioner, Christopher D. Cerf, said in an interview that the district had not yet shown the sustained progress required to end Trenton’s involvement.
Legislation passed in 2005 and 2007 created a process for the state to withdraw from Newark and two other districts, Jersey City and Paterson, once they met benchmarks in five areas: instruction and program, fiscal management, operations, personnel and governance.
By June, Newark had done so in all but instruction, building upon a 2007 review that allowed the district to regain control over building maintenance and safety issues. Jersey City has had approval over finances and governance since 2007, while Paterson remains fully under state control, though it passed benchmarks last year for governance, operations and personnel.
Regarding Newark, Mr. Cerf wrote to the new superintendent in July that “much work remains,” with graduation rates and test scores low, and with personnel procedures and operations that “continue to inhibit student learning and effective management of the district.”
“I thought we needed to take a deep breath and let the new superintendent get established,” Mr. Cerf added in an interview. “And let some of these new reforms begin to take root before we have this conversation.”
At least 20 states have taken control of local school districts over the last two decades, with mixed results in addressing fiscal crises, mismanagement and poor academic performance. Newark’s takeover, dating to 1995, is one of the longest-lasting; others typically range from one to 10 years.
The federal No Child Left Behind law, effective since 2002, specifically identified state takeovers of failing districts or schools as an option. More recently, Louisiana and Tennessee have created special state-controlled districts to oversee failing schools, rather than taking over an entire district.
In New Jersey, Mr. Christie in May chose the new Newark superintendent, Cami Anderson, who reports to Mr. Cerf; the state’s Education Department approves the district’s nearly $1 billion budget.
If the appellate court rules in favor of Newark’s school board, the state would continue to oversee instruction, but the nine board members could start to regain budgetary and policy-making powers, including the hiring — and firing — of superintendents. Under state law, if the district gets control over governance, residents would vote within a year on whether to keep an elected school board or change to a mayor-appointed board.
Many parents supporting the drive for local control complained that the state had pushed a culture of test-taking, leaving little room for electives like art, music, auto shop and cooking.