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A Christie Doctrine for Charter Schools?

The governor has big plans for NJ charters, but his biggest stumbling block may be a lack of cash.

Credit: Frank Conlon/Robert Treat Academy

It was news enough that Gov. Chris Christie yesterday announced 23 new charter schools in New Jersey, the largest class yet of the semi-autonomous schools. Nine were approved for Newark alone, nearly doubling the total in that city.

But the breadth of his plans may be more profound in the legislation his office is preparing, essentially rewriting the state’s 15-year-old charter school law.

In a copy provided by the administration, the bill would open up the potential of dozens of entities that could approve (or authorize) charter schools -- including local school boards. It would clear the way for both private and public schools to convert to charters, while eliminating any number of existing restrictions on who can operate charter schools and for which students.

For example, among the charters announced yesterday was a school serving children with autism, and another that would have single-sex classrooms -- in a co-educational building.

But the scope of his plans do not stop there. Under Christie's proposal the state education commissioner could unilaterally decide to convert an underperforming school into a charter. Parents could do so as well. Currently, teachers also need to approve the transformation.

Meanwhile, Christie stressed that there would be new accountability for charter schools as well, holding them to "performance contracts" that would stipulate specific achievement goals.

"We won’t accept failure from anyone, whether a district school or a charter school," he said.

Celebrating Charter Schools

Yet this was clearly a day for the governor to celebrate charter schools, holding the press conference at the Robert Treat Charter School in Newark, one of the state’s higher achieving and the first school he visited after his election.

He played up new statistics showing that a strong majority of charter schools in New Jersey last year outperformed the averages of their host districts. Those comparisons sometimes can be tricky given variations in the students served, but that did not hold the governor back in pressing that more opportunities be afforded all children.

"I want every child, regardless of zip code, to have the education their parents want them to have, and that is not the case today, particularly in urban communities," Christie said.

"All we’re doing is empowering a community movement that has previously been suppressed," he said.

While they may be new to New Jersey, many of the governor's proposed steps have been taken in other states, including the wide use of other agencies like colleges and universities to review and authorize charter schools.

"The addition of new potential authorizers brings New Jersey in line with a number of other states. While it is a significant departure from the history of charters in New Jersey, it is not unusual in the national context," said Katrina Bulkley, associate professor in education leadership at Montclair State University.

The Cash Nexus

Still, she added, Christie's changes also come with additional costs, something the state has not yet said how it will fund. "Charter authorizing, done well, is a time-consuming and costly exercise, and many potential authorizers will be wary of going down this path without some ability to recoup their costs,” Bulkley said.

There were other funding issues unresolved as well. A critical issue facing charters is facilities; they are prohibited from using public money to pay for space. The new proposal would only give them rights of first refusal if the public school district was to lease or sell space.

"What we hope we will do is by making more public facilities available, that will help," Christie said.

Still, when asked if districts would be compelled to give up unused space to charters, Christie said he was not at that point: "We’ll see how it goes. I am a compel kind of guy, but we’ll see how it goes."

In addition, Christie said he could not provide additional funding to charter schools to make up what they claim are severe shortfalls from what traditional districts receive. That disparity was the subject of a Jersey City Council resolution earlier this month calling for more equitable funding for that city’s charter schools.

"We have no money, and these folks in the charter movement know that," Christie said. "So we are going to have to work in a period of diminished resources and be creative in how we can help them financially."

One outspoken charter advocate in Jersey City commended the governor for his aggressive move on behalf of the charter movement, but said she remained disappointed that the funding issues remain unresolved.

"I’m really happy by the big vote of confidence for a sector that is clearly doing pretty good work," said Shelley Skinner, a board member of the state’s charter school association and development director of the Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City.

"It’s all great, but we cannot do this for free, especially with at-risk kids," she said.

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