Charter and Choice, the Next Piece of Christie’s Education Reform Agenda

John Mooney | September 30, 2010 | Education
Elysian Charter to host Gov. Christie as he fills in his school choice philosophy

Gov. Chris Christie will be at the Elysian Charter School of Hoboken today to present the second piece of his education reform agenda, this time dealing with charter schools and school choice.

And in picking the K-8 school of nearly 300 kids to make his case, the governor has chosen a school emblematic of both the challenges and the promises of the state’s 15-year-old charter school movement.

Elysian was among New Jersey’s first class of charter schools, founded by parents and teachers. Like other charters in the state, it has had its facility and funding challenges.

As with many charters, it has had its run-ins with the community. Yet it also has made peace with the school district from which it now rents space.

In a movement accused of shunning special needs children, Elysian enrolls close to one in 10 special ed students, not much below the state average.

Rules, Regulations, and Red Tape

But don’t get business administrator Kathy Mone going about the regulations and red tape the tiny school must deal with.

The whole notion of charter schools — small, independently run public schools — is to be free of the bureaucracy of larger districts.

But Mone said she still finds herself filling out countless reports, many on an antiquated state reporting system, that do nothing for her school. Transportation regulations required of large schools cripple one like hers.

“New Jersey’s charter schools are some of the most heavily regulated in the nation,” she said. “We’ve proven ourselves, but the excessive oversight is just taking money and time away from the children.”

“Let us have to prove we’re better, but then leave us alone,” Mone said.

Sweeping Reforms

Christie has said he aims to address some of the rules and restrictions on charter schools as part of a sweeping platform to provide more education alternatives statewide, public and private.

In presenting the first part of his reform plan earlier this week, centered on teacher accountability and tenure, Christie said the next phase would include expanding and easing the way for charters through looser regulations and fairer funding.

He said it would include opening the way for outside for-profit charter school operators to enter New Jersey, and opening the use of public district buildings for charter use. His administration has also backed proposals to expand the number of charter authorizers for approving and overseeing the schools.

New Jersey now hosts 72 charter schools, serving about 22,000 children, most in urban districts like Newark and Jersey City.

Christie is expected to be accompanied by Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Childrens Zone, a famed charter school network in New York City that the governor heaps praise upon as a model.

Criticizing Charters

Charter schools continue to have their critics, especially suburban districts that are starting to see charters draw more of their students – and their dollars.

Charters still are accused of elitism and unaccountability, and the schools’ records on student achievement are mixed — in New Jersey, and much of the nation. As measured by test scores, they’re some of the very best public schools in the state, as well as a few of the worst.

Planning to attend Christie’s presentation today, the head of the state’s charter school group said New Jersey is at a crossroads. It has a strong base of successful schools to learn from, but a law written in the 1990s prevents the state from scaling those lessons up.

“It’s not just charters for charters’ sake,” said Carlos Perez, executive director of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.

“We’ve been doing this a while, and we know what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “The conversation now is training on quality. Charter schools are not the magic bullet, and where we need to focus now is on this improved quality.”

Mone said she has no doubt to the quality of her school, and she said the school welcomed the call from Christie’s office last week to schedule today’s event.

“It was a little out of the blue,” Mone said of the phone call. “He had visited us during the campaign, too. We welcomed him then and we welcome him now. We are certainly excited for his support of charter schools.”

Parking may be another matter, she added. The presentation is scheduled for 2:00 p.m., near the end of the school day. Police have already said that streets will be closed off for the additional traffic.

“It’s going to be crazy,” she said. “As anybody knows, Hoboken isn’t easy with parking to begin with.”