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Tiny Charter School Office Digs Into Mountain of Applications

Gov. Christie's push for more charters puts the pressure on education department's undersized office.

Politics may continue to roil around the future of charter schools in New Jersey, but the state Department of Education's tiny charter school office already has plenty to keep it busy.

The office -- currently staffed by a half-dozen people but expanding soon to more than twice that -- now has before it 55 applications for new charters in New Jersey. It has two months to decide who on that list is worthy of a final charter.

It’s a daunting task, with anonymous outside reviewers again being brought in to give the applications first and second reads, before the staff makes recommendations to acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

On top of that are 23 charter schools already approved and slated to open this fall, the biggest class of new charters yet. And almost as soon as that work is completed, the next round of applications will be coming in October.

Such is the state of the state’s charter school operation as members of the legislature have sought to remake how charter schools are approved and monitored in the state.

Easy Passage

Last Wednesday, the Assembly easily passed a package of bills that would change the approval process, opening new doors for charters but also placing new restrictions on them once approved.

Although the bills face longer odds in the Senate, the package is in large part a response to rising criticism -- or at least concerns -- about the unprecedented expansion of charters in the state under Gov. Chris Christie.

But whatever the Legislature decides for the future, the charter school office has continued unabated for now, with the application process underway for the latest round of 55 applicants. (Fifty-eight were initially filed, but three were thrown out on technicalities, officials said.)

The process is largely unchanged from the last round that saw 23 new schools approved, but officials said it has been tightened to put more focus on the schools’ assurances of "academic success."

"We continue to make improvements and raise the rigor of the evaluations so we can have a confidence that there will be a high level of success once the schools open," said Carly Bolger, the office’s new director.

The oversight has been a difficult task with the office long short-staffed, but Cerf in an interview this weekend said that hiring to bring the size of the office to 14 has begun "as we speak."

It’s not just the applications to review, but nearly two dozen approved schools were also slated to start operation this fall and are currently under final review. That number is expected to drop, since at least four of nine new schools in Newark have asked for an additional planning year, officials said, and a Mandarin-language school slated for Princeton -- one of the most contended ones -- also did so.

Bolger said the delays are not necessarily a bad thing, helping ensure the highest quality school by the time the doors open. "We had a really, really tight timeline this year, and we have found the planning year as a really good tool," she said.

Turning Up the Heat

The flurry of activity comes as legislators have only turned up the heat on the state’s charter school operation, including Wednesday night’s vote in the Assembly that saw overwhelming majorities pass four bills.

Their Assembly passage was not much of a surprise. Democratic lawmakers control both the Assembly and Senate and have been among those leading the criticism of the movement under Christie as backlash has grown, especially in the suburbs.

But with the legislative elections in November, the handful of Republicans bucking the administration and either joining the “yea” votes or at least not opposing the bills also brought some attention, too. On one especially contentious bill that would require local approval of charters, there were 14 abstentions, all but one Republicans.

Cerf downplayed the politics surrounding charter schools right now, but conceded there were areas where the state could improve the approval process.

Repeating what he has said previously, Cerf said again this weekend that he would take a close look in the coming rounds of applications at the local impact of a new charter school, both in terms of academic programs and cost.

"I think it is entirely appropriate to look at the degree in which a charter would have an impact on a district, positive or negative," he said.

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