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A Charter Conversation

NJ Spotlight Roundtable brings together key players to talk charter school policy.

There’s not much agreement about New Jersey’s charter schools lately, but as the Christie administration and the legislature weigh how to move forward, some leading voices in the debate agree maybe it’s a good time to look back, too.

In a panel hosted yesterday by NJ Spotlight and held at Rutgers University in Newark, state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) said she had spoken with Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly about taking a hard look at New Jersey’s 15 years of charter schools.

Arguably the leading voice in the legislature on charter school policy, Jasey said she was unsure how to conduct the review, be it through hearings or a separate task force. But she called it long overdue.

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"It is past time for us to take a look back at the 15 years of experience we have had with charter schools in New Jersey," Jasey said. “We really don’t have any good information. There are a lot of opinions, a lot of data coming from different sources, but I think we need a very careful look back, what’s good, what’s not so good and how do we go forward.”

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf seconded the idea, agreeing during the two-hour discussion for the need of a "real reflective process" to examine the lessons of New Jersey’s early experience with charters and with what he said were fundamental reforms for both charters and traditional schools.

Rare Point of Agreement

It was one of the rare points of agreement during the NJ Spotlight Roundtable on Charter School Policy and Accountability, attended by more than 150 people and also Livestreamed on the web by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

In addition to Jasey and Cerf, panelists included Carly Bolger, director of the state’s charter school office; Katrina Bulkley, associate professor at Montclair State University; Julia Sass Rubin, one of the founding members of Save Our Schools New Jersey; and Karen Thomas, CEO of Marion P. Thomas Charter School in Newark. John Mooney, co-founder of and education writer for NJ Spotlight, served as the moderator.

Since Gov. Chris Christie has pushed for the expansion of charter schools and approved unprecedented numbers already, the roundtable discussion was intended to focus on the role of the policies, funding and accountability measures provided by the state, as well as local school boards and others.

An important ingredient in the mix is charter school authorizers -- state and other agencies that review and approve new charter schools and also provide assistance and monitoring once a school is operating, including through the charter renewal process.

New Jersey is one of four states in the country in which the state Department of Education is the sole authorizer, posing an increasingly difficult challenge for the department as charter schools have continued to expand.

Jasey has sponsored a bill that would allow up to three four-year colleges and universities to apply to be authorizers, under approval by the State Board of Education. The Christie administration has proposed draft legislation that would extend approval to all higher education institutions, as well as local boards of education.

Bulkley, the Montclair State professor who has studied charter school policy nationally, pointed out that other states have a broad range of authorizing mechanisms, with the most successful having the financial resources behind them and the independence from the political ebb and flow of different state administrations.

“It is very important that there be clear resources dedicated to the authorizing process,” Bulkley said. “We know that makes a difference. We can have the greatest structure in the world, but if you don’t have the people doing it, it doesn’t make much of a difference.”

Grassroots Group

There was hardly agreement on whether it should be in other hands. Rubin, whose grassroots group has been an outspoken voice in the charter debate, said she worried that multiple authorizers would make the charter process even less accountable to the public and the local communities. Her group has advocated for binding local votes before a charter school is approved.

"We have a lot of concerns about a multiple-authorizer model that doesn’t have a voter-accountable component," she said. "We want whoever is authorizing schools to see that the voters are involved."

Cerf concurred that New Jersey is not strong in its oversight of charters, but said that holds true of traditional district schools as well.

"The only thing we do worse than closing charters is closing bad district schools," he said. "We absolutely need to hold charters to high standards, but I wish we held district schools to the same standards."

The state recently moved in on one Trenton charter school for its poor academic performance, he said, leading the state to withdraw its charter. And he said more aggressive actions are coming.

"Without giving away too many state secrets, that is just the beginning of a process," he said. "I will say that we have done as a state extremely poorly and that is changing."

Shared Funding

Much of the recent tensions over charter schools in the state has come in the shared funding, with districts compelled to pay out of their budgets the equivalent of 90 percent of the per-pupil costs for each child attending a charter.

According to the panelists, there appeared few alternatives to the funding stream, with other states using similar formulas in providing for charter schools. Few, if any, provide money for charter school facilities, long a bone of contention for New Jersey’s charters.

Thomas, CEO of the Newark charter school, said as much as third of her budget goes to facility costs that she raises independently.

Another source of tension is the perceived sense that charter schools are selective in the students who attend. The schools are required to accept all students and, when space is limited, go through a lottery process. Yet the charter schools have lower percentages of students with special needs and limited English skills.

It is a difficult area to monitor, most agreed yesterday, with the state left to poring over data and oftentimes reacting to complaints to try to ensure schools are striving for student enrollments representative of the communities they serve.

"There is this perception that charter schools have the ability that they get rid of kids they don’t want and select kids coming in, and I think there is a lot to say about what extent that is true," said Bolger, the new director of the state’s charter school office.

"But my role as an authorizer is to look at that data and incorporate it into the renewal decisions and incorporate that into the performance contracts we are trying to implement," she said. "So we’ll look at student retention, look at English language learners and students in special education. But also be mindful to compare it to the district, where mobility rates can sometimes be high.

Thomas said her charter school is reflective of the demographics of the larger Newark community, but she said that the admissions process has indeed grown more sophisticated as both charters have expanded and parents have gained more knowledge about the schools.

"Ten years ago, parents would show up and fill out the application," she said. "But now they sit down and tell me they have the school report card and are looking at us in comparison with another school. It’s a far more savvy process. Everyone on my waiting list is probably on six other waiting lists here in Newark."

“The whole process in how parents are making decisions, we also have to be responsive from a policy perspective," she said.

Even more difficult are the rising number of charter schools with special focuses, most notably those providing Mandarin language and Hebrew language immersion. Several have already been approved in Mercer, Middlesex and Bergen counties, and two more Mandarin language programs have been proposed in Essex.

In each case, they are also in communities that regard their district schools as high performing, with some contesting the need for any alternative schools.

Cerf said that the state does need to take a look at the local community in deciding whether a charter is appropriate, evaluating the impact on the budget for a smaller district, for example, but also looking at whether it is serving an academic need.

"Of all the questions today, this is the most difficult," Cerf said.

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