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Op-Ed: Charter Moratorium Bill Is Endorsement of NJEA's Death Grip On Public Schools

Charter school students’ success is a direct threat to lucrative franchise NJEA holds on a public education system that has failed generations of NJ children

Dale Caldwell
Credit: Jimmy Louis
Dale Caldwell

State Sen. Shirley Turner recently introduced legislation seeking a moratorium on expanding enrollment for New Jersey’s charter public schools. This legislation will rob educational opportunity from thousands of New Jersey’s children already in charter schools, and deny more than 20,000 children on waiting lists the opportunity to attend a charter public school. Turner’s bill (S-2887/A-4351) intends to incarcerate thousands of students in the generationally failing local public schools that they are trying to escape. We cannot allow this bill to become law -- and I will tell you why.

As a New Brunswick Board of Education member since 1998 and as the head of school at the Village Charter School in Trenton since 2013, I know more than most people about traditional public education and charter public education, and I have seen a large district transform over time. In a few short years, the New Brunswick school district has grown from 7,000 students to nearly 10,000 students. Would it have made sense for the Legislature to prevent New Brunswick from expanding? Of course not, because it would have denied parents the right to send their children to the public school of their choice. So, the logic must apply to charter public schools, where it is just as ridiculous to prevent charter schools from expanding and allowing parents to choose a free public education option for their children. Any bill preventing parents from choosing how to educate their child is anti-parent and anti-democratic.

Why would Turner, vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, introduce such legislation? The bill is nothing more than an attempt to limit parent choice in communities of need and stunt the educational achievement of our state’s charter public school students. Achievement that is very real and measurable. Charter school students’ success is a direct threat to the lucrative franchise the NJEA holds on a public education system that has failed generations of New Jersey children, especially in some of our state’s most challenged communities, including Trenton, Newark, and Camden. And this is where we need to address the miseducation of our lawmakers.

Turner commented on S-2887 in a recent Trentonian article, saying, “We need to stop and study this issue before we continue opening up charter schools. From our experience here in Trenton, they haven’t been that successful. They claim that they can increase the students’ scores and do the job of educating our students for less money, but that has not been the case.”

Wrong, senator. The five charter schools in the Trenton area (Sen. Turner’s home district) outperformed the district schools as measured by both the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) and New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) standardized tests. HSPA math scores were 30 percent higher, and language-arts literacy (LAL) scores were 25 percent higher for charter school students vs. their peers in the district public schools. NJASK scores show that charter school students outperformed district public school students by 24 percent points in math and 19 percent in LAL. With such progress, it is difficult to understand -- even when pressed by the NJEA -- why anyone would stop the success of children?

It has to do as much with politics as with the public’s degree of disappointment with New Jersey’s public schools in urban communities. While costs continue to rise, student achievement, particularly in our urban communities, stagnates. Before we inject more politics into the public-education sector, we must examine proven methods of education so they can be replicated and elevate the level of education for every NJ student -- charter, public, or otherwise. The charter school students of New Jersey cannot wait for access to quality schools, access to equitable funding, or access to safe facilities. Currently, New Jersey’s law intends 90 percent per-pupil funding for charter students, compared with traditional district students. But the reality is that number is closer to 69 percent due to politicking and the funding formula.

Legislative restrictions and politically motivated attacks notwithstanding, charter-school students are achieving. Charter public schools are producing graduation rates far outpacing their traditional public-school counterparts. The NJEA and their champions in the Legislature cannot allow the one sector of the public education system that is showing achievement, promise, and hope for students and families to flourish if it cannot be controlled by them, so they exert political pressure to stifle the success of charter public schools. A-4351/S-2887 are perfect examples of that is wrong with government. Legislators need to be called on it, and we must push for change that benefits New Jersey’s children.

Dale Caldwell is the head of school of the Village Charter School in Trenton and had been a member of the New Brunswick Board of Education since 1998. He has been president of the Middlesex Regional Educational Services Commission since 2001. In 2009, he was named New Jersey School Board Association (NJSBA) school board member of the year; this year, he was named New Jersey Charter School Association (NJCSA) administrator of the year.

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