When the Christie administration announced in January that it had approved 23 new charter schools, that number was celebrated as being the largest class of charters yet. Equally impressive, according to the administration, there would be close to 100 of the alternative schools operating this fall.
Six months later, it turns out only seven of those 23 will be ready to open their doors come September. Factor in two more schools, which had been approved in other application cycles, and that brings the total to nine new charters -- for a grand total of 80 operating in the Garden State.
Virtually all of the other charters are taking a "planning year" to get their staffs and facilities in order, state officials said. The exception is a school planned for Atlantic City. The state denied its final charter after it failed to meet requirements by last week's deadline.
The administration'sheralding the nine charters was a far cry from last winter's celebratory announcement. Not surprisingly, it drew some skepticism from critics who questioned why so many of these schools originally passed muster.
“If they were not ready for prime time, why were they being approved in the first place,” said Julia Sass Rubin of Save Our Schools NJ, a grass-roots group that has been openly critical of the state’s charter school law.
The administration said the nine charter schools opening next fall still represent the largest class since 1999, but it preferred to focus instead on the accountability that the state has placed on the new schools.
"You have to do a lot of things, and a lot of things well, to get a charter in New Jersey," said Carly Bolger, director of the state’s charter school office.
Bolger described an intensive process of reviewing and re-reviewing each school’s plans to make sure it would be ready. Budget controls needed to be in place, staff ready to go, and assurances in place that there would be enough students. The law requires that at least 90 percent of a school’s planned enrollment must be signed up by a July 15 deadline.
"We take this seriously," Bolger said in an interview yesterday. "We thought in January that 23 applications were good, but we then need to take them each through the process . . . You can only see so much on paper."
She acknowledged that there were a high number of schools using next year for planning, but said it was largely a product of a tight schedule in what was an expedited application process that gave schools only eight months to open after approval. Started under former Gov. Jon Corzine, the process was aimed at attracting applicants who could launch schools quickly.
"But I think many of them realized that once they had the go-ahead, with all they had to do, it was just too much," Bolger said.
The state also has a second, slower application cycle now underway, with applications approved in September for the following school year. More than 50 prospective charters are currently under review.
The administration's latest announcement drew mixed reviews. The state charter school association applauded the administration for its tighter accountability.
"The DOE is doing exactly what a good charter school authorizer should be doing," said Carlos Perez, director of the New Jersey Charter School Association. "The DOE is focusing on whether the proposed school will be able to serve children when they open their doors."
But critics said it is evidence that many of these schools maybe should not have been approved at all -- and criticized the entire charter process.
Rubin cited one charter school in Princeton that is getting a second planning year.
"If you can’t get it together, the state will give you a planning year," she said. "If that’s not enough, they'll give you a another year. Where's the selection process?'