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Op-Ed: Greater Oversight of Charter Schools Clearly Needed in New Jersey

Three-year moratorium on charter enrollment would give us room to think about successes and shortcomings so far

sen. turner
Sen. Shirley K. Turner (D-Hunterdon and Mercer)

New Jersey’s charter schools are at the center of a fierce debate about how best to educate our children. It’s a debate that I welcome, because after 20 years of existence in our state we have seen mixed results when it comes to charter schools’ success -- many times at the expense of our traditional public schools.

Dozens of New Jersey charter schools have closed due to financial mismanagement, high academic failure rates, or other problems. In Trenton, we’ve seen more than a half a dozen charter schools close, including one in the same year that it opened. Others haven’t even made it to the five-year mark. The establishment of charter schools in some areas of the state has been successful; unfortunately we have not seen that widespread success in Mercer County.

We need better accountability and oversight of charters and time to examine how they really are faring in all corners of the state. That is why I recently introduced legislation (S-2887) that would place a three-year moratorium on expanding enrollment in New Jersey’s charter schools. This will allow us to pause and look at exactly what is taking place in our schools. It will give us time to determine the most responsible way of providing parents with education options given the very limited resources we have to work with in New Jersey.

As the sponsor of the law creating the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which allows students to attend high-achieving traditional public schools outside of their districts, I am a strong advocate for providing parents with educational options. However, we have to make sure those options are meeting high academic and fiscal standards.

Yes, we have heard glowing reviews of charter schools from some observers, and some schools are providing successful programs to our students. But these reviews are only telling half the story.

Charter schools were supposed to serve as incubators to bring innovation and improvement to our traditional schools; in too many cases they are serving as an untested alternative to traditional publics that are diverting funding from local districts without demonstrating academic success.

This has resulted in millions of dollars lost to our traditional public schools.

In March, the Trenton school board voted to eliminate over 200 positions and close down a school in part because of increasing payments the district must make to charter schools as more students enroll. This is becoming an ongoing pattern in school districts in the state. The fiscal year 2016 budget passed in June required 83 school districts to transfer an extra $37.5 million to charter schools across the state, even though state aid to school districts has remained flat-funded. The additional contribution of nine high-need districts exceeds $500,000, which means less funding to support the educational needs of public school students.

Aside from this issue, there are real questions about the performance of charter schools amid claims that they are far exceeding traditional schools. While advocates point to higher test scores in these schools, the fact is that many charters are not educating the same population of students.

Statistics show that Trenton traditional public schools enroll more students in need of alternative services such as special education and for whom English is a second language. Out of 561 students at Grant Elementary School, a traditional public school, 19 percent have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 25 percent are Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students, according to New Jersey Department of Education data. Whereas the Village Charter School with 360 students has nine percent of students with IEPs and no LEP students. Similarly, Trenton Central High School’s main campus with 1,811 students has 19 percent of students with IEPs and 10 percent LEP students. Whereas Foundation Academy Charter School with 544 students provides education to six percent of children with IEPs and only one percent with LEPs.

The difference in populations served is also seen in the number of students eligible for free lunch, which is a common indicator of poverty. In the traditional public school system in Trenton, 84 percent of students are eligible for free lunch, compared with 72 percent attending charter schools. Income levels are strongly correlated to higher achievement, a factor that cannot be ignored. In the U.S. and especially across districts in New Jersey, schools with lower percentages of students eligible for free lunch have higher percentages of students that are proficient in the NJASK.

The poorer students are, the lower their test scores will be. Moreover, charter schools are able to manipulate outcomes by weeding out students with behavioral problems that are more difficult to educate; those students return to the public school system, which must take all comers.

Additionally, some charter schools are failing due to low academic performance and high expenditures.

In 2012, the Department of Education did not renew Emily Fisher Charter School of Advanced Studies’ charter because of the school’s “culture of low expectations,” “little evidence of learning taking place,” and low graduation rates. The previous year, Trenton Community Charter School’s charter was denied for similar reasons, including failing to meet federal testing standards, with no turnaround plan, inadequate buildings and subpar lesson plans. That same year, Capital Prep Charter High School had its charter denied due to financial mismanagement with a $300,000 deficit.

In addition, researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Utah have found that compared with traditional public schools, charter schools appear to devote a smaller share of their funds to instruction and a higher share to administration. When analyzing schools in Michigan, for instance, they found that charters on average spent nearly $800 more per pupil per year on administration and $1,100 less on instruction. Charter and traditional public schools’ spending trends must be examined and policies put in place to address them. In New Jersey, a major problem is that charters are not subject to the same salary standards as traditional public schools. For example, at the Village Charter School, which enrolls 360 students, the CEO earns $146,000 while its principal makes over $100,000 a year.

Superintendents of traditional schools, with far larger populations, are currently subject to state-imposed salary caps in New Jersey while charters are not.

Moreover, there are issues of accountability and transparency regarding budgets and salaries with charters. While traditional schools have to submit their budgets to the state Education Commissioner and have to report salaries for any employee earning over $75,000, charter schools do not. This can result in charters keeping detailed salary information from being scrutinized. This is unacceptable. If there are employees making six-figure salaries that are supported by local taxpayers, they should be vetted just as salary and contract provisions are for those working in traditional public schools.

Yes, there have been successes but we cannot overlook the failures. As a temporary reprieve, this measure would help traditional schools get back on their feet financially while helping to determine better ways to provide oversight and solutions for charter school funding and enrollment issues. Let us not get sidetracked over the real issue. Whether through traditional publics or charters, we must provide the best quality of education for all children in New Jersey.

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