NJ Charter Schools On the Fast Track to Approval

An expedited application and approval process is drawing out-of-state charter school networks to New Jersey

As politicians trumpet them and philanthropists seem eager to help pay for them, New Jersey’s charter schools are about to draw a lot of new interest, including from private operators.

The state Department of Education is expected to receive a record number of applicants this week for its new fast-track approval process, said its spokesman, with at least three national networks jumping into the mix.

Among them would be the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), already an established veteran of Newark charter schools and looking for license to double its enrollment there. In addition, the Mastery Charter Schools out of Philadelphia and the multistate Imagine Schools are both expected to apply by this week’s expedited deadline, the spokesman said.

“We expect this to be probably the biggest year for charters in probably a decade,” said Alan Guenther, the department’s chief spokesman.

The Rush Is On

The rush comes as the Christie administration seeks to remake the charter application process on a number of fronts, not only expediting and expanding the review but aggressively pressing for charters to move into low-performing districts like Newark and Camden.

Ironically, the rush also comes when the Christie administration only approved six of nearly 30 applications from the previous round of bids, such a low approval rate that the department didn’t even announce it with a press release. But Guenther said the next round should be much more fruitful in the fast-track process enacted under former Gov. Jon Corzine but being used for the first time this year.

Aimed to attract established operators that can move quickly in opening schools, the application cycle could draw proposals for as many as 50 new schools, doubling the typical application pool, Guenther said. Those decisions are due in January.

The First Wave

Part of the first wave of charters to the state, KIPP has four TEAM Academy schools already in Newark’s Central, South and West wards, with a fifth coming next year. Its founder said he will apply for approval of five more schools in Newark, potentially doubling the size of the network to 4,800 students.

Ryan Hill, TEAM’s executive director, stressed the charters won’t all come right away, as several conditions need to be met. But Hill has long talked about the potential for replicating the popular KIPP model in New Jersey’s largest city, and he said this weekend that the timing is about right.

“I don’t know if it was just the mere fact of Christie’s election, but also from what he is saying about charters and now the Zuckerberg money, it all makes it definitely more attractive, especially in a place like Newark,” Hill said.

Charters are expected to be among the chief beneficiaries of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent $100 million gift to Newark.

Outsiders Unwelcome

While KIPP has a longstanding presence in New Jersey already, newer players like Mastery and Imagine could be more controversial in a state that initially discouraged outside operators from coming in without local partners.

Both Mastery and Imagine networks are well established outside New Jersey. Mastery runs more than a half-dozen schools in Philadelphia, including six in which it took control of existing public schools with its so-called “turnaround” model.

It recently announced it also had its eye on Camden as it won a $5.1 million federal grant to expand, and won approval for its first charter school in that city in the last round. It plans under the grant to add 15 schools in the two cities.

Imagine Schools is based in Virginia and has more than 70 charter schools in 12 states, plus the District of Columbia. It serves about 40,000 students, according to its website.

The head of New Jersey’s charter school association said the state’s charter school movement is turning a corner, with more charter authorizers expected to be added to the process and clearly more attention already here.

“Once you see the more friendly environment, you’ll see more of these groups and the established operators show an interest,” said Carlos Perez, chief executive of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.

Perez said the state still has what he calls the “hard pieces” to get in place, including statutory changes and more stable funding. But he said the “soft pieces” of political support and philanthropic attention all help.

“These are the things that create a culture of reform,” he said. “That’s moving in the right direction, and the first thing to change.”