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Amid Debate Over Spread of Charters, State Education Chief Stays the Course

Hespe says NJ should take deliberate approach but touts new approvals for schools in Trenton, Camden

Hespe
Credit: Amanda Brown
State Education Commissioner David Hespe

Charter schools have lately become the tinderbox of New Jersey education policy, but acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe hasn’t hesitated to promote the often-controversial approach to education reform.

This week, the state Department of Education cleared the way for more expansion of charter schools next fall, with the focus on Trenton and Camden.

Two of the five individual charters cleared to open next fall will be in the state capital.

In addition, the state finalized the expected opening of two more charter networks in Camden under the separate Urban Hope Act, a move that could have an even more sweeping impact.

Starting next fall, three of the region’s largest charter networks will open their first schools in Camden, with planned expansions that could see them serve as many as half of the city’s students within the decade.

Hespe said yesterday in an interview about charter schools that he nonetheless wants to take a deliberate approach, focusing the growth of charter schools in the cities that he thinks needs them the most.

Notably, no new charter schools were approved to open in Newark next fall. However, the charter networks already there continue to increase their enrollment – putting new pressures on the city’s public-school district.

“We have to pay close attention to where we are going with charter schools, and how they can complement opportunities for children in districts that are particularly underserved,” Hespe said in the telephone interview.

For instance, he said, the charters in Trenton will give families more choices. He applauded the state’s approval of two new schools scheduled to open in that city in September.

Newark appears to have less of a need for more charters at this point, Hespe said, although he added that the launch of a new universal enrollment system should provide more data to help determine the need and demand for the schools.

“There are cities that are over-served,” Hespe said. “Whether you could say Newark is saturated or not, that has yet to be determined. We are right now in the data collection. But I would say they are certainly not under-served.”

The Christie administration’s stance on charter schools is being watched closely, in part because of Christie’s expected bid for the White House in 2016.

And while the administration has approved fewer charters in the past few years --and even closed four schools in the last year -- it has placed its stock on the larger networks.

That is most apparent in Camden, where adoption of the Urban Hope Act has allowed charter networks to make inroads in the city by committing to also build new schools.

It has been a controversial path, to say the least, facing challenges from opponents who say the law gives the charter networks too much leeway.

The three networks now approved for opening their first schools in the fall are KIPP, Uncommon Schools and Mastery Schools.

An amendment to the law that has been approved by the Legislature and awaits Christie’s signature could extend the reach of the charter networks even further.

The Education Law Center, the advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke school equity challenges, yesterday issued a lengthy report saying that that the three charter networks will essentially take over Camden district once they build out completely.

“As a result of the Commissioner's approvals, the private KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon charter chains will operate 15 schools serving 64% of all Camden schoolchildren,” said the report released by ELC.

“The Commissioner's action will also have a major impact on the State-operated Camden district, relegating the district to the task of transferring funding to Mastery, KIPP and Uncommon,” the report said, “while attempting to educate, with a severely diminished budget, those students the charters are either unwilling or unable to serve.”

Hespe said yesterday that he is aware of these concerns and has invited state-appointed Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard to start discussions regarding on the growth of charters in the city.

He said it isn’t just a question of how many students will attend charters, but also which students will attend those schools. He declined to say if there is a specific tipping point for the percentage of students attending the public schools and those in charter schools.

“I’ve asked Paymon what’s his vision of all Camden students, not just those in the district,” Hespe said. “What is this going to mean for all students, including those with disabilities and other special needs?”

Still, Hespe was not backing off from the pro-charter track first laid out by his predecessor, former commissioner Chris Cerf. That’s not surprising, since Hespe served as chief of staff to Cerf in 2011 before leaving the department and then coming back as commissioner earlier this year.

And while there is considerable discussion and debate over rewriting the state’s charter school law and revamping how schools are approved and monitored, Hespe doesn’t think there’s any need to rush in that regard.

He acknowledged there are some unresolved issues pertaining to virtual charter schools, as well as debate over how charters are funded, but he said a resolution is not immediately in sight.

"We are not committing to a bill at this point,” he said.

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