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Charter Schools Still Struggling, Despite Governor's Enthusiastic Backing

New Jersey's charters face funding inequities, facilities shortages and sometimes resentment from suburban host districts – for starters.

Credit: (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

Charter schools in New Jersey have long complained that they have a series of financial obstacles stacked against them.

They receive only a portion of what a local district spends for the same child, sometimes a small portion, and they get no public funding for facilities at all.

Then add in the new issue that New Jersey’s 73 charter schools are unlikely to get any of the $268 million in emergency federal stimulus money for New Jersey public schools.

Yesterday, Gov. Chris Christie spent more than an hour before a full house at a Hoboken charter school praising the work of New Jersey’s charters and promising more technical support and less state regulation for their expansion.

But hardly unnoticed in parts of the charter school community, Christie didn’t say much to solve the charters’ cash problems.

“The governor has amazing vision for public education and we applaud his support,” said Shelley Skinner, who sat on the stage with the governor as a charter school leader in Jersey City and statewide.

“But until the funding inequity is addressed, it will be hard to implement,” said Skinner, development director of the Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City. “For a community like ours, we’re facing extinction without that support.”

May You Live in Interesting Times

It’s an interesting time for charter schools in the state. A pro-charter governor is seeking to open up more of them, and Newark especially has become a hotbed, with one in 10 students already in charter schools and the new $100 million gift to the city meant at least in part to seed them further.

But there is a growing resentment in suburban districts to the checks they must write to charter schools they host, some contending the charters provide no better an education. And the tensions are all exacerbated by the continued fiscal crisis that has put the pinch on all public schools.

With Skinner among the most outspoken, the charters have lately been speaking up on their own to a governor sympathetic to their cause, trying to address what they see as long-running problems with how they are funded.

On average, according to the state’s data, they spent in 2008-09 about $13,200 per student, about $2,000 less than district schools.

Ryan Hill, founder of the TEAM Charter Schools in Newark, one of the state’s highest performing, said much is rooted in the school funding formulas that preceded Christie.

“It’s not just some regulatory fix,” he said. “And this is administration is so pro-charter, if it was easy to fix, they would have probably done it.”

And Christie’s administration said they are listening, although somewhat hamstrung by their own fiscal constraints. At the presentation yesterday, one top Christie aide said that the inequities are real and efforts are underway to try to address at least some of them, although he said he couldn’t provide much detail as yet.

“We’re definitely looking at the per-pupil amounts and the facilities issues,” said Gregg Edwards, Christie’s policy director and currently the acting chief of staff in the state education department.

“The governor said in his campaign that the charters are not getting their fair share,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”

Funding Formulas

The disparities come in the complexities of the New Jersey charter school law of 1995 and a series of funding formulas since then, all the products of political process that has not always looked fondly on charter schools.

In short, the charters are supposed to receive from districts 90 percent of what the local schools spend per child. But how that is calculated is where it gets complicated. Charters in urban districts have historically only received a portion of the base funding, and none for supplemental or extra costs. That improved a little in the last formula, but it still left them out of a large pot of so-called “adjustment aid” coming to some of the districts.

Jersey City has been the most notable example, and that leaves Learning Community getting little more than half of the $17,000 that the district spends per pupil, Skinner said. “We’re seeing high-needs kids, and at $8,900 per student, it’s nearly impossible to serve them,” she said.

More onerous to all charters is that the law also prohibits them from spending the public funds for facilities, an especially burdensome cost in the start-up stages. New Jersey is one of many states where such facilities money is not provided.

Christie yesterday stopped short of offering direct facilities aid, but he did throw them some help and said he would support new rules in the law to allow charters to more easily use underutilized district space.

That was no small thing to Hill, the TEAM director in Newark. “Free buildings, if it happened, would be $1,500, maybe $2,000 per student,” Hill said.

The controversy over the new federal money has only added to the tensions, this one borne out of the federal guidelines that accompanied the funding last month.

In this case, the $268 million earmarked for retaining school jobs must be distributed through the state’s school funding formula. But New Jersey is one of the state’s where charters are funded through districts, and they in turn received none of the extra aid at all.

New Jersey is hardly alone with this, since the differing charter funding systems have each run headlong into the federal rules, with varying results. For some, like Florida, the money has reached the charters. Connecticut’s charter schools have been left out, like New Jersey’s.

“Hopefully there is still some chance this money can be accessed, but charter schools have had a difficult time, even though they are public schools like everyone else,” said Brooks Garber, vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“With a mish-mash of how we pay for charters, it means they are often again getting left out in the cold,” he said.

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