Camden, NJ-- The 13,700-student Camden school district became the fourth school system Monday to come under New Jersey state control.
Gov. Chris Christie, faced with a school district that has the second-lowest graduation rate in the state, a declining enrollment and high poverty said the city system is broken and the state is taking over Camden City Public Schools as soon as legally possible. The district has 20 days to respond.
"I don't want anything worse for the children of this city or any other city in the state of New Jersey than I would want for my own children," Christie said in his announcement with Christopher Cerf, commissioner of the state Department of Education, at Woodrow Wilson High School here. The New Jersey governor has four school-age children.
Under a state-run system, the local school board will have an advisory role, and the state will choose a new school superintendent. The process could be in place in six to eight weeks.
While the state's three largest school systems have been under state control for decades, this is the first time that Christie has removed control from local education officials.
Camden Mayor Dana Redd expressed optimism about the takeover.
"We recognize as leaders that we have an obligation to give children a real chance to succeed," she said.
The school system for this city of about 77,000 across the Delaware River from Philadelphia long has been plagued with low test scores, falling graduation rates and declining enrollment. During the 2011-12 school year, graduation rates plummeted by 7 percentage points to 49.3%, down from 56.9% the year before. The graduation rate statewide is 86%, according to the New Jersey Department of Education.
Camden, the sixth largest school district in New Jersey, has the second lowest graduation rate. Only Trenton, N.J., schools are lower.
Three of Camden's schools are the lowest-performing in the state, and 90% are in the bottom 5%. Less than 20% of fourth- graders are proficient in language arts literacy, and just 28% of 11th-graders are proficient in math.
In a statement, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat from Gloucester, N.J., said the time had come for a state takeover.
"We recognize this is a dramatic change," he said.
The state already had a financial monitor in the school system, but Christie said a report in August convinced him more needed to be done.
A transitional leadership team immediately will begin a 90-day review of all school operations, the administration said.
Once the takeover plan is approved, the governor said the state will move to revamp curricula, begin a search to put full-time teachers into slots now occupied with a rotation of substitutes, and ensure that every child has the necessary books and instructional materials.
In its request to the state Board of Education for full intervention in Camden, the state accused the school board and school administration of failing to run the schools effectively.
The application said the poor outcomes in Camden are not the result of a lack of resources. The city, which receives special state aid because of its poverty, spent $23,709 per student in the 2011-12 year, compared with a statewide average of $18,045.
Students in the district numbered about 13,700 in the 2011-12 school year, and 84% were in the free and reduced-price lunch program. Charter schools serve about 4,000 more students.
Enrollment has continued to decline because of charter schools in the area and a school choice program. Christie said he hopes the decline will level off in coming years as Camden schools improve.
"I don't see it as my job to keep students in the district against their will," he said. "I want to create an atmosphere where they want to stay on their own free will."
Camden joins the state's three largest school districts, in the northern part of the state, that have been under long-term state control:
• Jersey City since 1989
• Paterson since 1991
• Newark since since 1995
At least 20 states have taken control of local school districts in the past two decades, according to The New York Times. Two dozen states have enacted policies allowing them to take over a school district because of academic problems, according to a study from Rutgers University.
The state's largest teacher's union expressed reservations about the planned takeover.
"It is always preferable to have public schools managed by local communities, and the citizens of Camden must be assured that they will continue to have a strong and respected voice in reforming a public school system that meets the needs of all Camden students," said Barbara Keshishian, president of the New Jersey Education Association.
"The track record for state-run districts has been questionable at best, and NJEA will withhold judgment on the Camden takeover model until we see the details," she said.
Christie said the union and its members have a stake in the success or failure of the state's plan.
Anyone "who tries to obstruct this process, I will personally call them out," he said.