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Fine Print: New Charter School Regulations

Cerf gets more powers with more room for online charters under rules under review.

What it is: The Christie administration has proposed new regulations for New Jersey’s charter schools, from who can apply, how the application process would work, and what would be required for charter schools once approved, including considerably more powers for the state education commissioner. The proposal is before the State Board of Education, which will hold a public hearing on Wednesday.

What it means: The proposed regulations include a number of controversial measures, some of which critics contend go against what is allowed under the state’s 15-year-old charter school law. Among them are provisions for online charter schools and expanded roles for national charter management companies.

What it may mean: There are significant political implications as well. Some of the changes in the regulations are included in the Christie administration’s proposal for a new charter school law, a proposal that has all but stalled in the Legislature. What hasn’t stalled is ongoing push by some legislators to require local vote on new charter schools, a proposal that the administration badly wants to stop.

Public hearing: A public hearing on the regulations will be held at the end of the monthly meeting of the state Board of Education this Wednesday. The board meets at the NJ Department of Education, 100 River View Plaza, Trenton. A number of advocacy groups are expected to testify against the changes, including the Education Law Center and Save Our Schools New Jersey. The latter has launched a petition drive against the changes.

The administration’s stated aim: While Gov. Chris Christie has pushed for the expansion of charter schools in the state, his education commissioner, Chris Cerf, has said that the state would also demand more of them through a series of performance measures. The proposed regulations also create a two-tier application process that will allow the department to focus more on applicants ready to open, while giving more time for local districts to review applications.

The consequences: The new regulations would also provide new options for the commissioner to deal with lower-performing charters, including the flexibility to both close them immediately or to provide them more time to improve, depending on the circumstances.

Reaction from the charter community: “The performance framework in the proposed changes to the regulations is a welcome addition. This is a basic tenant of chartering that is in practice in most states. This framework not only provides a clear blueprint for success, but also allows the charter to operate freely within that framework,” said Carlos Perez, director of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.

Online schools: The proposed regulations would be the biggest step yet in codifying online charter schools in the state, something not addressed in the existing law that largely predated the education model. Under the proposal, online schools would be explicitly allowed, including those that serve students across the state. Existing law requires charter schools only serve students in specified communities contiguous to each other.

At stake: The state has already approved two online charter schools, both expected to open this fall. It also has approved three other so called blended or hybrid charter schools that mix online and in-person schooling. The nation’s largest online education firm, K12 Inc., is involved in four of the five programs.

Not everyone’s favorite: The online schooling provisions have so far drawn the most fire from critics, including one legislative proposal to put a moratorium on any new approvals. Critics have maintained that the online schooling is more intent on making money than providing a good education for students, and they have been especially critical of K12 Inc.’s involvement as a for-profit company

Three concerns: "First, many of the proposed regulations are in blatant violation of the charter school law,” said Julia Sass Rubin of SOS NJ. “Second, they are intended to circumvent the will of the Legislature, using regulations to write rather than interpret existing legislation. Third, they are in direct conflict with the wishes of New Jersey residents, who clearly want local, democratic control of public education rather than to give the Commissioner unprecedented levels of power.”

The petition: As of last night, SOS NJ’s petition had more than 1,030 signatures.

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