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Cybercharters Come Online in New Jersey

Two online academies are part of the current crop of charters. Both raise intriguing questions about what defines a school.

Back when New Jersey’s charter school law was enacted in 1995, online learning was more futuristic than realistic, barely a notion for lawmakers to ponder, let alone regulate.

Now it’s the law that may need to catch up to reality. The Christie administration has approved two online charter schools, without much statute or regulation in place to say how they would work.

This has made for some interesting discussions. For instance, the current rules require a physical plant that online schools don’t necessarily have. More serious questions crop up about whether a virtual school can be a charter at all, under the law.

The answer to the latter question may lie with the governor: the two virtual academies are part of his broader push into unconventional charters, including another one strictly for autistic children.

Let's Get Physical

Timothy Nogueira, the main founder of the New Jersey Virtual Charter School, said time and again during the application process he was asked by state officials to explain how requirements for a physical plant or specific enrollment targets would apply to a school that has neither.

Nogueira is superintendent of the Monmouth-Ocean Educational Services Commission that would host the new virtual school.

"They asked me how a lottery would work [for admission],” he said of one question. "I told them there is no lottery. If 15 more students sign up, I’ll just hire a new teacher."

It’s a dilemma popping up a few places with Gov. Chris Christie’s aggressive push to expand charter schools in New Jersey. His administration last month approved the biggest group of new schools yet, adding 23 new charters to the 73 that already exist.

But in the mix were some schools that current law is, at best, vague in addressing. Another that has drawn attention is a Newark charter that would be dedicated entirely to children with autism, a novel idea under the charter school law.

Filling the Void

The administration has recognized the void in the law, and Christie has proposed an array of changes that would specifically accommodate such specialized schools, including those for students with classified disabilities and those in which classes are taught online.

But without any bill as yet, the schools have been left to justify and explain themselves.

For instance, as part of its application for state approval, the New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School included a four-page legal opinion by Stephen Edelstein, a noted education lawyer in the state.

The opinion sought to answer a central question: “Does current New Jersey Law and Regulation governing charter schools prohibit cybercharter schools?”

At issue are two specific legal requirements. First, 90 percent of the enrollment of a new charter school must be from the home district. Second, the application must include a description of the "physical facility in which the charter school will be located."

The letter by the Morristown attorney said both rules appear flexible in the existing statute and are not specifically mandated for the application to be approved. In fact, he contended that the law’s emphasis on the creation of innovative schools provided the necessary green light.

"On the contrary, permitting cybercharter schools is consistent with the broad legislative intent to 'encourage the use of different and innovative learning methods' to foster educational improvement," Edelstein wrote.

Both cybercharters aim to serve students who have struggled in traditional schools. The Newark charter envisions starting with 850 students, mostly in the middle school grades, and growing to more than 1,000. It would employ a curriculum developed by K12 Inc., the application said, with more than 180 online courses available and 21,000 individual lessons. Twenty-nine teachers would be employed the first year, expanding up to 48.

The application points out that New Jersey is just one of five states without a statewide program for online learning.

"It is different, but it is not untried," read the letter from the founders, led by Michael Pallante, former principal of the Robert Treat Academy Charter School in Newark.

The Monmouth-Ocean virtual school would start smaller, working with specific high school students who have threatened or followed through on dropping out of traditional schools. It would begin with 150 students.

"Tell me the kids who just missed graduating, and we’ll try to enlist them," said Nogueria. "That’s who we will try to help."

Monmouth-Ocean lists four specific districts that it will serve -- Camden, Paterson, Perth Amboy and Neptune -- and it will do so in partnership with area community colleges. Each student will be assigned a guidance counselor whom they would meet at one of the colleges weekly. They could take classes wherever they can set up a laptop.

The Monmouth-Ocean district has been running a similar program over the summer since 2002, and Nogueria said he was ready to launch the charter school this summer. The state department insisted it wait a planning year, he said, apparently to work out the oversight and funding mechanisms.

"I could do this next week," he said. "If you’re looking shovel-ready, that’s us."

Still, Nogueira said he is grateful that the state has gone along, and he will do his best to fit the educational version of a square peg into a round hole.

"We have a site visit planned for July 1 of our physical plant," Nogueira said. "I guess I’ll show them our server room."

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