Despite Christie’s Big Promises, Charters Still Face Challenges

John Mooney | February 25, 2011 | Education
Charters, like public schools, would see increase of about 1 percent of overall budgets

Credit: (Tim Larsen/Governor's Office)
The pronouncement in Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address on Tuesday drew some of the biggest applause of the day.

The state was increasing its funding for charter schools by 50 percent, the governor said, one of the biggest increases in what is otherwise an austere budget. On top of his administration’s recent approval of 23 new charter schools, the words cheered the state’s fast-growing charter community.

“We need to create choices for families who can’t wait for their local schools to get better while their children’s lives are being wasted in failing classrooms, one year tragically on top of the next,” Christie said.

But a closer look at the proposed budget shows a more mixed fiscal picture for charter schools, with the state providing limited direct funding and the underlying financial challenges for the schools remaining largely unresolved.

For example, the 50 percent increase amounted to $13 million, a relatively small amount and for a very specific fund.

The majority, about $8 million, will cover non-public students added to charters’ rolls in the coming year. The remaining $5.1 million will be specifically for about a dozen charters that are shortchanged through vagaries of the state funding formula, officials said.

“It was an adjustment made so there was at least a modest catch-up for those charter schools in places like Jersey City and Hoboken, said Chris Cerf, acting education commissioner.

Do the Math

But the 50 percent increase actually amounts to less than 5 percent of the total funding of charter schools across the state, which last year spent approximately $300 million overall, according to the latest state data.

Otherwise, the bulk of the charter schools can look forward to an increase that is roughly equivalent to 1 percent of their overall budgets, much like the rest of the state’s public schools.

Still, as they learned the budget details, charter school leaders were not complaining this week, not after a year when many of them faced their own reduction in programs.

“When looking at a time of difficult cuts across the state, the fact that we’re not cut should be celebrated,” said Carlos Perez, president of the state’s charter school association.

Nevertheless, he and others said fundamental financial issues remained for charter schools, even with a governor who has made them a centerpiece of his reform agenda. There continues to be no funding for facilities, an especially big cost for new charter schools. And the state’s charter school law provides them funding that amounts to at most 90 percent of what a district spends, and often much less.

Stand and Deliver

“We really need them to look at those issues,” said Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, head of the LEAP Academy Charter School in Camden. “He’s been committing himself to charters and we’re going to hold him to that.”

“The challenge is will he mean what he says and deliver,” she said. “It has to be more than a speech.”

Advocates said it didn’t help that the state last summer also missed out on $14 million in additional federal funding for new charter startups. “There are still funding issues for us, and the loss of that federal funding was a big hit,” Perez said.

Perez was hopeful the state would do better on the grant when the next round of applications is due this spring, especially with its high-profile governor. “I think the creation of the 23 charters and the governor’s leadership will only help the case to be made for the funding to come to New Jersey,” he said.

Another issue still unresolved is the state’s own capacity and resources for overseeing and monitoring charter schools, widely seen as a shortcoming in a decimated state Department of Education. That capacity was cited by federal reviewers in the state’s failed grant application as well.

In his budget address, Christie reiterated his ongoing support for legislation that would allow the state’s colleges and universities to serve as oversight agencies, or authorizers.

How those programs would be paid for also has not yet been addressed, in the budget or elsewhere. Still, advocates said Christie pressing for them in his speech — if not yet in his funding — is an important step.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for charter schools, was in the Statehouse for the budget address and said afterward that she was heartened at the governor saying all the right things.

“Choices, new authorizers, that’s something we have been working with on a lot of states,” Allen said. “For those who complain about the accountability of charter schools, the states that have multiple authorizers have more accountable schools.”