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Opinion: Can Traditional Schools Learn to Play Well With Charters?

It’s time to retire the rhetoric and help both types of schools do what they do best: educate our children

laura waters
Laura Waters

NJ Spotlight just reported that next year one out of four Newark public school students will opt to attend a charter school. Trenton Public Schools recently confirmed that a similar percentage of parents will decline placements in traditional districts and enroll their children in these independent public schools. Camden Public Schools officials predict that 25 percent of their 15,000 students will do the same, as some of the most highly regarded charter organizations -- KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Mastery -- prepare to open schools that offer promising educational alternatives.

Certainly, these past few weeks have been challenging to defenders of the old-school monopolistic model. After decades of adhering to a top-down bureaucratic paradigm, New Jersey is one of many states that is starting to develop a diversified model of education delivery. Instead of a one-size-fits-all system, we’re evolving toward a portfolio of options for students that includes both traditional schools and independent public charters.

This shift presents a challenge to the New Jersey educational establishment. Can those invested in the old-school model find a way to embrace this upgraded network of public education that best serves the needs of children? Or will they get bogged down in the negative politics of resentment often ignited by institutional change and, not incidentally, the refiguring of balance sheets?

Last month Bob Braun, former columnist for the Star Ledger, harrumphed, “Not only should there be a moratorium on all new charter schools, all charter schools should be given notice they will be closed or converted to tuition-based private schools within five to 10 years.” The leadership of the New Jersey Education Association, which represents most of our fine educators, snarled, “today’s reformers have no loyalty to public education and what it stands for. Instead, market-based 'reforms' treat a school as a consumer choice. Some see the vast $600 billion system of public schools as a source of private profit.”

The disdain expressed toward charter schools by those resistant to change is reminiscent of the way national television networks reacted when confronted by HBO and Netflix: sneer at the upstarts and worry about market share.

Public education, of course, isn’t entertainment but our most important governmental function. Still, it’s not any more immune from resentment than any other enterprise facing an increasingly competitive environment. Next year one-fifth of Newark’s annual $900 million budget will go for tuition payments to charter schools; Trenton Public Schools is currently grappling with a $10.5 million hole in its budget; Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard just announced plans to lay off 400 staff members and reconfigure school facilities to adapt to a declining enrollment.

The NJEA peers at its prospective membership list (charter school teachers can unionize, but they don’t have to) and ponders declining revenues.

Several years ago the Center on Reinventing Public Education published a study that offers a scenario that focuses not on market share but on children:

“As charter schools continue to expand across the nation and especially when they serve large percentages of a community’s children, school districts and charter schools are increasingly choosing to abandon negative competition in favor of collaborative partnership. This is not to say that charter schools have moved from the margins to the mainstream or that they never face fierce opposition. But in a growing number of communities across America, the relationship between charter schools and districts is transforming, from the traditional paradigm of opposition, competition, and indifference to a partnership based on trust and collaboration through a shared mission, shared resources, and shared responsibility.”

So how do we arrive at that that collaborative, trusting partnership and move away from the tired narrative of “opposition, competition, and indifference?”

First, New Jersey needs to be more transparent about the way it funds charter schools. A veritable tome of myth and innuendo impedes accountability. This lack of clarity fuels the resentment expressed by public districts, especially suburban ones, who view funding as a zero-sum game and struggle to sustain programming and payroll costs.

But don’t blame it all on the DOE. The state Legislature is complicit in this distrust through its apparent inability to update New Jersey’s 20-year-old charter school law. Lots of promises, no action. A recent proposal, courtesy of Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), didn’t even bother to address funding issues, which John Mooney described in these pages as a “glaring omission.” Get it done, and don’t leave out the hard parts.

And as long as we’re ascribing blame, charter schools themselves could do a far better job of publishing budgets, salaries, costs per pupil, and facilities costs (especially since New Jersey, contrary to best practices in charter school governance, declines to offer facilities aid). Additionally, charter school operators should take the lead in proposing shared-services agreements between traditional and independent schools. Potential areas of fiscal efficiency include collaborating on professional development for teachers and other staff members, sharing curricular materials, and finding economies in areas like building use, Web-based services, communications, bulk purchasing, and so on.

Times change. “House of Cards” and “Mad Men” win accolades; NBC and its brethren accept a differentiated field, and a new delivery model emerges that (mostly) produces mutual respect and even a few strategic partnerships. So let’s press the mute button on politically driven denunciations and work together on the shared mission of all public schools, traditional and charter: to provide great educational services for children.

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