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Opinion: Assemblyman Diegnan's Charter Bill Flies in Face of (Rare) Consensus

One of the few things educators and administrators agree on: charter schools need multiple authorizers.

Here’s a rarity within New Jersey’s education reform community: consensus. The NJ Education Association, Gov. Chris Christie, Commissioner Chris Cerf, Education Law Center, and NJ Charter Association concur that the state's charter school law is broken. In response, several members of the state Legislature are working on overhauls, and last week a draft of the bill Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) is putting together was leaked to NJ Spotlight.

Critics of our 14-year-old charter school law are buttressed by various national research organizations that evaluate state charter school legislation and find ours lacking. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), for example, ranks New Jersey 31st out of 42 states with charter school laws.

We lose points on funding inequities between traditional (district) and independent (charter) public schools and a certain lack of transparency. Most critically, New Jersey relies on a single entity to authorize new charters (the education commissioner), despite mounds of data that proves that effective laws invest “multiple authorizers” with approval authority.

You might have been surprised, then, to read Assemblyman Diegnan’s draft last week and notice the retention of a single authorizer model. According to the proposal, the commissioner is divested of his or her authority and the mantle is passed to “the voters of the district at the annual school election in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type II district, or the board of school estimate in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type I district or a Type II district with a board of school estimate.” In other words, charter school applicants can only get approved through community referenda.

It’s so Jersey, right? After all, New Jersey residents, at least wealthy ones, are almost entirely responsible for funding their local school districts. (That’s one of the reasons why our “charter school wars” are so contentious.) Shouldn’t taxpayers be empowered to choose what public schools they pay for? It’s a sentiment in sync with our penchant for local control, and strikes a chord with those who view charter schools with suspicion.

Ideally, of course, charter school law should be driven by educational needs, not political ones. Let’s look first at the matter of single vs. multiple authorizers, hardly unexplored territory given that America has 42 states with laws on the books. (Minnesota was first in 1999.) NAPCS’s “model law” recommends “two or more” authorizers of new charter schools, in addition to an appeals process. The Center for Education Reform advises that “permitting the creation of independent authorizers is one of the most important components of a strong charter school law.”

New Jersey is well-equipped to abide by best practices in this arena. (Reportedly, Sen. Teresa Ruiz will propose multiple authorizers in her forthcoming rewrite of NJ charter school law.) A sample list of authorizers might include Rutgers, Education Law Center, local school boards, NJEA, and the state Board of Education.

That’s the easy part. The more complex and politicallywrought component is Assemblyman Diegnan’s designation of local communities as the sole authorizing authority and no appeals process. What do educational researchers say about this sort of model?

Nothing, because no other state in America defers authorization of new charters to a community vote.

The closest existing model to a full-fledged community vote is investing local school boards with sole authorizing power, which is sort of the same thing but without the expense and delay of a general election. Six states legislate this system of charter school approval with no appeals process: Alaska, Connecticut, Iowa, Virginia, Wyoming, and Kansas. These states have almost no charter school growth or, as NAPCS reports, “there is almost no authorizing activity.”

Education Sector notes that school boards “are often hostile to charter schools, which compete with them for students, funds, and prestige,” adding that “state charter laws that allow only local school boards to authorize charters,” with no appeals process, “can result in very few charter schools in that state.” A cynic would say that this is Assemblyman Diegnan’s intention. After all, giving school boards sole authority to grant approval for new local charters is like giving Wal-Mart sole authority to grant approval for new local merchandisers. Taking it one step further -- consigning such approval to a local referendum -- is a political calculus, not an educational one.

Certainly, New Jersey’s top-down authorizing mechanism does a poor job of including community members in charter school debates and, in that sense, Assemblyman Diegnan is exactly right to spotlight this fracture. The first part of a remedy is appointing multiple authorizers. The second part is extracting the sentiment behind the draft bill -- local residents need more say -- and creating opportunities for input and assessment. These could include public hearings, more fiscal and academic accountability rubrics for charter schools (commendably contained in Assemblyman Diegnan’s draft), and mandated discussions with school boards, municipalities, and other community groups.

Public education should be a partnership, traditional district schools and autonomous charter schools working together to offer educational opportunities to all students. New Jersey needs new charter school legislation that nurtures this sentiment. Assemblyman Diegnan’s bill isn’t it.

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