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Fine Print: Newark Charter Compact

A new 'contract' among charter schools stresses transparency and accessibility.

What it is: The Newark Charter School Fund, a philanthropic and advocacy organization created to help the city's charter schools, has forged a contract with charter leaders in Newark that pledges full transparency and accessibility.

What it means: The compact -- meant for all charters to sign -- is more symbolic than legally binding, but speaks to a serious issue. It aims to address frequent concerns that charter schools are not following the spirit, let alone the letter, of state law, which requires them to be open and accessible to all students, especially those with special needs. Whether it quiets the critics is probably doubtful, but yet to be seen.

The stakes: Newark is host to the most charter schools in the state. Eighteen charter schools -- including three new ones this fall -- are located in the city, almost a quarter of the statewide total. They serve about 7,500 students. That's one in six public school students in the city.

The three main points: The compact specifically reads that a charter school will follow three general guidelines:

  • it will recruit, enroll, and retain students in a fair and open way, focusing especially on those with the greatest needs, be they disabilities, low income, or limited English skills;

  • it will provide clear and accessible data about its enrollment, performance and budget; and

  • it will collaborate with the host district in sharing best practices and other resources.

The details: The compact reads that schools will post all data about themselves in a ready place on their websites, including updated discipline and attrition rates that some critics contend are high in many charter schools.

Aren't they supposed to do all of this anyway? The law requires many of these practices, but is not explicit regarding all of them. For instance, charters are prohibited from putting up any barriers to people entering enrollment lotteries, but have been accused of holding required pre-lottery interviews or meetings or having cumbersome applications processes. The compact specifically says such practices will not be adhered to.

Have all 18 schools signed? The charter school fund has said a "critical mass" has signed on, including all of the district's larger charters. "That should help get the rest of the group," said Janellen Duffy, the fund's vice president for policy. She has pledged the fund will publicize both those schools that sign and those that do not.

Doesn't quiet the critics much: Two days after announcing the compact, tensions are still high in Newark over the coexistence of charter schools and district schools. This became an issue last spring, when plans were unveiled for district and charter schools to share space. This week at the local advisory board meeting, a parent advocate contended that the shared campuses have led in some cases to disparate opportunities for students in the same building.

Why not a compact for all NJ charters? Acting state education commissioner Chris Cerf this fall put much of the same language in a letter to all charter schools, but how well it will be enforced is to be determined. Critics contend that pledges are one thing, but even stricter restrictions are needed statewide, including those now proposed in the legislature. The compact is "no substitute for badly needed reform of state charter law, now pending in legislature," said David Sciarra of the Education Law Center.

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