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Opinion: The Charter School Controversy -- Much Ado About Nothing

It's time for NJ to catch up with the rest of the country and recognize charters as the natural ally to traditional school districts.

Why do charter schools incite such passion in New Jersey? They’re a tiny piece of the educational pie: out of 2,500 schools in the state only 80 are charters (another eight were just approved by the DOE) and they currently serve less than 2 percent of NJ’s 1.38 million public school kids.

Charters follow the same curricular standards as traditional schools and are subject to the same accountability metrics. Students who apply to charters are chosen by lottery, unlike public magnet schools, which often require admissions testing. A recent report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools notes that New Jersey's charters receive 34.7 percent less in funding per pupil than our traditional public schools, so they’re a bargain to boot.

Perhaps the biggest rap against charters is that the local community must pay for them -- at least for tuition and transportation -- a fact that's trotted out at seemingly every opportunity by their opponents.

In the fabric of New Jersey's public education system, the thread-count for charter schools is low. Yet their existence provokes the sort of red-faced rhetoric more suited to a Giants game than a discussion of educational options. It’s time for everyone to take a deep breath and think about what’s at stake.

Much of the sturm und drang that surrounds the charter school movement in New Jersey centers on the perceived fiscal and academic threat that charters wield over suburban districts, which tend to be high-performing. We’ve got 591 districts and 591 school boards: that’s a lot of territorial chutzpah. We’re very proprietary about educational offerings within our private Idahos (or Montclairs, Montgomerys or Moorestowns) and we think our educational and fiscal liability ends there. We’ve taken insularity to its logical conclusion. Not my zip code? Not my problem.

Example: in 2010 an aspiring charter called Princeton International Academy Charter School filed an application with the DOE to open a tiny Mandarin-immersion school that would draw from three districts: Princeton, West Windsor-Plainsboro, and South Brunswick. All affected boards of education weighed in and each gave a vigorous thumbs-down, a verdict as predictable as the tides.

Former commissioner Lucille Davy approved the application. In response, the three districts mounted a public relations campaign to fight the opening of the school. Current costs for lawyers, zoning engineers, and other professionals are estimated at about $100,000, which came from school taxes. In response, PIACS has hired its own lobbyists and lawyers and is suing the Princeton Regional School Board for misuse of public funds. Judge Lisa James-Beavers just ruled in favor of Princeton; PIACS is appealing her decision to acting commissioner Chris Cerf, who will rule in February.

Obviously, it’s worth a lot to these three wealthy towns to stymie establishment of the charter. Princeton’s already been burned by Princeton Charter School, which bills the district annually for about $5 million in tuition and entices the cream (of the cream, if you will) away from the already high-performing traditional district.

The battle over PIACS hasn’t gone unnoticed at the Statehouse. In an effort toward conciliation, the Christie Administration appears to have signaled that it’s prepared to limit charter school expansion to chronically failing urban districts. To wit, seven of eight newly authorized charter schools are in Camden, Trenton, Jersey City, and Newark. In part, this bow to political reality may also aim to thwart passage of a controversial law that would subject an aspiring charter to a community vote.

But maybe New Jersey just hasn’t caught up with the rest of the country. In fact, a new report out from The Center for Reinventing Public Education, “A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools in 2011,” argues that the relationship between conventional districts and charters is evolving “from a traditional paradigm of opposition, competition, and indifference to a partnership based on trust and collaboration through a shared mission, shared resources, and shared responsibility.” In other words, across the country there’s a growing acceptance and appreciation of charter schools, a recognition that through partnership comes strength.

New Jersey's already taken the first steps towards this partnership with its expansion last year of the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program (IPSCP), which allows public schools with empty seats to solicit students from outside district boundaries. Sending districts pay tuition and transportation, just as they do for charter schools. Suburban and urban districts participate alike.

It’s not such a stretch to imagine that this partnership embodied in the IPSCP could be extended to non-traditional, independent public schools. Certainly, that sort of partnership among public schools is something to aspire to. And, if it is, shouldn’t our legislation and policies reflect those aspirations?

New Jersey may cherish its pugilistic reputation, but it’s time to move on. Let’s drop the overheated rhetoric, at least in the arena of education.

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