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More Than 20 Years, Newark to Regain Control of its Schools

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.”

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, fuelled 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.

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.