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Fine Print: Charter School Performance Framework

John Mooney | July 23, 2012

The rules and regulations for the charter schools, specifically the nine newest.

What it is: The state Department of Education last week released a 23-page checklist for all new charter covering academic, financial and other operations. The framework sets standards on everything from how well students must fare on state tests to financial data on how much debt a school is carrying.

What it means: The Christie administration has continued to revise its accountability standards for charter schools as it faced increasing pressure from critics and local school districts. The new framework was announced at the same time that the administration cleared the way for another nine charter schools to open in the fall, including two that will provide a mix of online and in-person instruction.

Where it came from: The standards were developed in conjunction with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, an increasingly influential organization working with the state in not just setting policy but reviewing applications and renewals.

Whom it applies to: For now, the new framework only applies to new charter schools, starting with the nine announced last week. A similar framework will apply to existing charter schools, but is still in development and will not be released until the end of the summer, officials said.

The quote: “Charter schools are granted autonomy in exchange for accountability, and we at the state level will continue to hold all charter schools accountable for results to ensure that they offer all students a high-quality education and an equality of opportunity,” said acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

Tough standards: The framework requires that the new charters not just match student achievement in their host districts but exceed it. For instance, a charter school will only meet standards in math when it exceeds district averages by at least 10 percent.

Who’s in school?: Admissions and enrollment policies for charter schools continue to be their biggest target, with critics contending that some charter schools serve students who are not representative of the school districts they draw from. The new framework does require charter schools to monitor enrollment numbers and check for high attrition rates of English language learners, and to at least have a plan to address them. It does not have a specific policy for low-income students, and largely keeps to the law in terms of what is required for students with disabilities.

The consequences: Not everyone is pleased, with critics questioning who will do the evaluations and what the consequences will be. Some called the checklist “toothless” and meant to subvert legislative efforts to put more accountability in the schools. “The new performance framework points out more problems that it can solve,” said Deborah Cornavaca, an organizer with Save Our Schools NJ. “If this framework, as reported, is to be self-administered by charter schools we cannot expect a thorough and objective evaluation. And there is no indication of repercussions or corrective action on the part of the DOE.”

Always about capacity: The state’s monitoring will always come down to the extent it can itself monitor the schools, an issue faced with district schools as well. The state’s charter school office has doubled in size since Cerf came into office, but no further expansion is in the state budget for next year, while the interest in charter schools and their needs for oversight only continue to grow.

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