NJ Not Helping Itself With Charter Schools

John Mooney | November 30, 2010 | Education
Experts find state's policies and practices getting in the way of charter growth

As the Christie administration pushes for more than 100 charter schools by 2014, it is finding New Jersey’s own policies and practices may be the state’s own worst enemy.

An influential national think-tank yesterday gave those policies just a “C,” citing uneven funding, insufficient capacity and weak regulations hindering the movement.

Meanwhile, new details of how the state lost out on $14 million in federal charter school grants this summer reveal a state Department of Education strained, if not handicapped, in its resources and capabilities to handle that kind of expansion.

All this in a state where Gov. Chris Christie wants to add at least another 30 charter schools in the next three years, up from the current 72, and has more than 50 applications to review in the next two months.

Earlier Administrations Faulted

A spokesman for the state Department of Education put the blame on previous administrations for hamstringing charters, and said a package of “proactive reforms” were coming.

“Under Governor Christie’s leadership, the Department of Education has taken action to improve its charter school operation and fundamentally change a culture and organization that during prior administrations was regarded as hostile towards charter school expansion,” read the statement from spokesman Alan Guenther.

The statement provided no further details, but Christie has called for big changes in how the state approves and oversees charter schools. He’s asking, among other things, for easier conversion of traditional public and even private schools to charters.

Naming a Commissioner

The governor also has what may be the most critical decision still resting on his desk: Who will lead the department as education commissioner to put these policies in place?

His spokesman last week said a decision was coming by the end of the year. In the meantime, acting commissioner Rochelle Hendricks remains in place — and in limbo. Hendricks, who had overseen the state’s charter school office for the past several years, has been considered a leading candidate for formal appointment, but not the only one.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen reviewers have been brought in to help evaluate the 52 applications now before the state — including Derrell Bradford, executive director of the Newark-based advocacy group, Excellent Education for Everybody.

“I think they are doing the best they can right now with a process that is purposefully unworkable,” said Bradford. The spotlight, he added, is on the state’s charter school office to show it is up to the task.

“The department was not built to do any of the things the governor has talked about,” he said.

In the Middle of the Pack

That continued to be the theme of New Jersey’s middling ranking in the annual scorecard by the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization that has been arguably charter schools’ biggest cheerleader.

New Jersey has rarely done well in the rankings, and this time dropped two slots to 19th out of the 41 states with charter school laws. Some of its lowest scores concerned the fiscal conditions of charter schools, with the state providing no facility funding and guaranteeing no more than 90 percent of district funding, if that.

In addition, the state was rapped for not having multiple agencies or organizations able to authorize new charter schools and oversee them once open. A bill has passed legislative committee to add multiple authorizers but has yet to make it to vote over questions as to how it would be funded.

The report came on the heels of new details in the state’s failed application this summer for federal charter startup aid, amounting to $14 million over three years. A review of the 30 pages of comments from the six reviewers for the application found repeated questions about the state’s capacity to handle such an expansion.

The reviewers cited the state’s intention to hire the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to be a consultant in its expansion, without a specific plan as to how that would happen.

Another said New Jersey’s track record is not strong. “Although there has been a recent surge in charter applications, the state’s record for opening charters in the last three years is weak,” the reviewer wrote.

And harkening back to maybe New Jersey’s most notorious failed federal application, that for $400 million in Race to the Top funds this summer, virtually all the reviewers chided the state’s lack of a plan as to how it would evaluate the progress of the grants.

“The response is unclear and lacks answers to most major components of the question,” wrote one reviewer.

Democratic leaders yesterday jumped on the state’s poor showing, as first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“It was bad enough that New Jersey missed out on $400 million in federal funding through the administration’s bungled Race to the Top application, but now we miss out on $14 million for our charter schools because of another botched application,” said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) in a statement.

“This is stunning, but also sadly another indication of the lackadaisical approach this administration has toward educating children,” the statement said.