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Cerf Pulls Plug on Online Charter Schools

Growing opposition to virtual charters, legal challenges and gray areas help inform commissioner's decision.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday told the organizers of two proposed online charter schools that he would not grant them the final approval needed to open next fall.

The decision comes as something of a surprise.

A year ago the two charters -- a K-12 school in Newark and a high school for dropouts in Monmouth and Ocean Counties -- appeared poised to become the state's first all-online programs. Both had received preliminary approval from the Christie administration.

But support slowly wilted over the past year, as community and political opposition mounted. And K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education firm, was connected with both charter applications as well, prompting debate over the for-profit company’s role.

The Legislature held a handful of hearings on the topic, and the state’s dominant teachers union -- the New Jersey Education Association -- has filed a challenge in court.

In the face of the growing disapproval, Cerf hedged in his support as well. He postponed awarding the final charters this past summer and has said little on the subject since then, before disclosing his final decision yesterday.

In the letters to the schools yesterday, Cerf cited the many uncertainties about both their legal standing and the effectiveness of online education. The state’s charter school law has no provisions for virtual learning, not surprising given that the measure is 17 years old.

“Uncertainty about the legal foundations for fully virtual charter schools and the Department’s serious concerns regarding its ability to effectively oversee such schools precludes the Department from granting . . . a final charter,” Cerf wrote to one of the schools.

The schools aren’t going down without complaint. The leaders of the New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School, which would be operated out of Newark by K12, immediately released a letter to Cerf outlining their concerns over first being postponed a year ago and then rejected outright.

“We now find ourselves in the position of having to tell 850 children, their families, and the teachers your staff insisted we hire as part of the compliance process that, once again, the school will be denied the opportunity to open and prove ourselves,” read the letter from Michael Pallante, chairman of the proposed school’s board.

“Not once during all of the hearings, trainings, demonstration sessions, e-mail, and telephone conversations were we ever told that this was going to happen to us and to these families once again,” he said.

The school noted that it had also hired experts to speak to the legality and effectiveness of the programs. K12 also signed on with the state’s top lobbying firm, Princeton Public Affairs Group.

Pallante did not say if the school would appeal the decision, but indicated that it would at least push for reconsideration.

“Commissioner, we request a meeting with you as soon as possible and at the same time ask that you reconsider your decision,” Pallante wrote.

“We have done everything asked of us, we have been a good partner, and we have done these things because deep down we believed that you and Gov. Christie were champions of parental choice and would stand up for New Jersey families over the objections of the NJEA and other critics,” he continued.

The other rejected school, which was to be operated out of the Monmouth-Ocean Educational Services Commission, had been on shakier ground, and its founder said he was likely to withdraw the application. The program was intended to serve potential dropouts in four communities, but had difficulties in signing up the required numbers.

Tim Nogueira, the district’s superintendent, said the enrollment problems and difficulties in meeting the state’s requirements “were just too much to overcome.” He said the state had plenty of time putting in place the required regulations and other guidelines to help schools like his, but did not appear intent on doing so.

“It is obvious that New Jersey is not a pro-online state, and is already well behind in this,” he said. “That’s unfortunate.”

Critics applauded Cerf’s decision, saying he must have heard the many concerns about both the effectiveness and the potential profits of the programs.

“This would have been a disaster for taxpayers and a disaster for children, and we are happy that he did the right thing,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools New Jersey, a pro-public school group.

“We hope that he will continue to make the right decision,” she said. Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director, said it was “an experiment we don’t need to take in New Jersey.”

“We’re pleased with the decision,” he said. “From an education and policy perspective, it’s the right one.” Cerf had faced off on the topic with state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) just the day before at a legislative hearing on Gov. Chris Christie’s budget. Weinberg had been one of the online schools’ biggest critics, backing one bill that would have placed a moratorium on such models.

Cerf hinted at his decision to come, and Weinberg said she would be ready for it if he gave the schools the go-ahead.

“I’ll give you fair warning,” Weinberg said. “This is not a great way to educate children, and this is a very risky field that we are getting into.”

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