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Advocates demand Abbott school reform - State leaders called on to take accountability
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Advocates demand Abbott school reform
State leaders called on to take accountability
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff

As New Jersey's investment in its neediest schools comes under rising scrutiny, several children's and community advocates yesterday demanded the state do a bet ter job of making sure the money is spent wisely.

The advocates, led by those who have battled the state over its funding of the schools, said it is time for new leadership in the state Department of Education and a new commitment to hold districts accountable for reforms mandated under the Abbott vs. Burke school equity rulings.

"We know that after three governors, and several commissioners and assistant commissioners, the state has dropped the ball, failing the Abbott children, their schools and their communities," said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, which has led the Ab bott legal fight and organized yesterday's announcement.

Among the steps needed, they said, was a comprehensive evalua tion of the Abbott programs, fiscal and administrative audits, a statewide student database, and greater community and parent involvement in decision making.

The call for better state oversight is hardly new, and much of it has been ordered by the court. But the renewed call comes now at an opportune time as Corzine administration has tightened the belt on new state money for Abbott districts.

A few of the districts also have come under fire over some of their administrative and other spending, including the Jersey City superintendent's overseas trip to a conference and performance bonuses for Camden's school chief.

The advocates said yesterday unless the state takes a stronger role now, Abbott reforms could be undermined entirely.

"If we don't insure accountability, we run the serious risk of losing the public will," said Diana Autin, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, based in Newark. "There are too many examples of where bad decisions are made ... and if that is to continue to happen, the funding that is so im portant is at serious risk of being lost."

Other advocates taking part in yesterday's presentation at the Statehouse in Trenton were the Association for Children of New Jersey, the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, New Jersey Black Issues Convention, the New Jersey NAACP, Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers, Paterson Education Fund, and the Statewide Education Organizing Committee.

State officials said accountability has been a main focus of their efforts, and they cited ongoing reviews and audits of district budgets, tighter regulations on Abbott preschools, and new policies on travel and other administrative perks.

In addition, Gov. Jon Corzine last month took an unprecedented step by vetoing the contract of Camden Superintendent Annette Knox for being too generous.

"Since taking office a few months ago, Gov. Corzine has moved aggressively to ensure that all children receive a thorough and efficient education; accountability is key to meeting that goal," Corzine spokesman Anthony Coley said.

Assistant State Commissioner Gordon MacInnes, who oversees the Abbott implementation, is a chief target in the advocates' call for new leadership. But he said yesterday that advocates appear to center more on compliance and procedures and not as much on student achievement.

"We're at a stage that, given the run-up in funding, we can make the statement these districts now have adequate resources, with a few exceptions, and we need to be focused on what is effective in the education of these children," he said.

Yet he also raised a fundamental disagreement on the limits of the state's role in driving what happens in classrooms.

Sciarra yesterday cited the state Supreme Court's own words in its Abbott rulings that give the state authority to order changes. MacIness claimed such mandates don't work when it comes to instruction.

"The state's role is to provide every opportunity and assistance to get this work going," MacIness said. "If it ends up a district is not prepared to do that, there is no way for me to hold a gun to their heads. I don't care what judges or lawyers or editorial writers say, you can't mandate these things."

Posted on: 2006/6/15 13:16

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