Senate Hearing Raises Old Concerns About Charter Schools

John Mooney | September 24, 2010 | Education
Proposed legislation would increase oversight of charter schools while making it easier for new ones to open

Fifteen years into New Jersey’s venture with charter schools, a move by the Christie administration to help boost the number of charters has brought to the fore tensions about charter schools that already exist.

The Senate education committee yesterday hosted a hearing on a bill that would allow college and universities to become authorizers of the small and often-innovative schools. State officials said the move would help extend the number of charters.

Gov. Chris Christie has made the expansion of charter schools a centerpiece of his education reform agenda, especially in urban centers where they have seen their greatest numbers and success.

The state now has 72 charter schools, serving approximately 22,000 students, the bulk in cities such as Newark, Jersey City and Camden.

“This would increase our capacity to develop high-quality charter schools and oversee those charter schools to maintain that high quality,” said Chris Emigholz, legislative liaison for the state Department of education.

Old Arguments

But as much as officials and some legislators tried to steer the discussion toward adding more charter schools, much of the testimony centered on charters that have already opened. The debates haven’t much softened since New Jersey enacted a charter school law in 1995.

The discussion has been most contentious of late in suburban communities that are increasingly seeing new schools open.

The tensions are both financial and philosophical. Districts must pay charter schools for students who attend. In higher-performing suburban communities, that brings questions as to why the independently run alternatives are needed in the first place.

The latest hotbed is the Princeton area, where one charter school has been in operation since 1997, and a second is due to open next year with a focus on Mandarin language immersion.

Princeton Regional schools will pay $4.8 million next year to the two schools, said local officials, while they look for ways to pay for staffing and programs in traditional public schools.

“This is a question of equity, of taxation without representation, and certainly of efficiency and accountability,” said Judith Wilson, superintendent of Princeton Regional Schools.

“For districts to have to go to the voters every year to have their budgets supported, and then those voters having no voice over the charter school funding in that budget, that is a major question for the Senate and Assembly to address,” she said.

Adding Authorizers

Several legislators said the addition of authorizers to approve and monitor charter schools would help the state to address these and other worries. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) the committee chairwoman, opened the hearing by saying the state Department of Education is not up to the task under current staffing.

“This bill is about accountability and putting measures in place that the Department of Education cannot fulfill right now,” she said.

Sponsored by Ruiz, the bill was first introduced this summer and drew a host of worries that it would open the way for less accountability of charters not more. It has since been amended. After first naming Rutgers University as one of two authorizers, it now allows other four-year schools to tackle the task. The bill also was tightened concerning virtual or online charter schools.

A continued point of contention yesterday was special education charter schools, which advocates testified would only continue New Jersey’s high rate of separate special needs schools.

But much of the discussion came back to the oversight issue, and a general recognition that an understaffed state charter school office did not have the capacity to adequately review new applications and also continue monitoring existing schools.

Charter school advocates said the addition of authorizers would help raise that capacity, pointing out that New Jersey is among the small minority of states that do not have multiple authorizers.

Ensuring Accountability

“We do have to make sure that charter schools are held accountable, and that is the role that authorizers have to play,” said Carlos Perez, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “In states where charter schools have traditionally underperformed, charter school authorizing is weak.”

A lobbyist for the state’s school boards association suggested authorizing even extend to local boards of education, so as to help address the tensions between charters and local communities.

Such arrangements are not uncommon, with 20 states allowing for local boards to authorize charter schools, and the boards making up more than half of all authorizers nationally.

“With local districts as authorizers, charter schools can experience more wide-ranging parent and taxpayer support,” said John Burns of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

In the end, the education committee did forward the bill to the full Senate, but its members said they would consider the concerns that were raised and likely amend the bill before a final vote.

“It’s just the opening of the conversation, not the closure of one,” Ruiz said.