Fine Print: Charter Schools in New Jersey — Interim Report

John Mooney | March 8, 2011 | Education
Charters or conventional schools? The latest report doesn't answer the question either way.

Summary: Acting education commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday presented to the State Board of Education an extensive report that he said showed how many of New Jersey’s charter schools are outperforming traditional public schools while serving roughly the same populations.

Why it matters: The debate over which is better — charter or traditional — has become almost political sport of late in New Jersey, with Gov. Chris Christie making a big push to expand charters, while others argue there is little appreciable difference when it comes to achievement.

Big point of contention: The report seeks to address specifically the criticism that charter schools serve fewer students who are low-income and fewer with disabilities. “On average, charters serve a smaller number of students with disabilities than traditional public schools. District public school average: 15.87%. Charter public school average: 8.24%. Although lower, this figure dispels the myth that charters aren’t serving special-needs children.”

Yeah, but: Critics say that is a significant difference, especially with some charters serving virtually no special-needs kids. And it still doesn’t account for what could be the varying disabilities within those totals, and claims that charters generally don’t serve those with severe disabilities.

Yeah, but but: Cerf points out that New Jersey has one of the highest classification rates in the nation, and not necessarily for the right reasons, since too many children are classified as disabled when schools are at a loss as to how to serve them. Although he did not provide any empirical data, he said charters are less apt to classify a child and instead will seek to integrate him or her into general education.

Reads his clippings: Cerf yesterday took on his critics and called out specifically some in the media — and their sources — who have been most skeptical of his charter claims. He called the issue of special education “grossly oversimplified” by critics and some of their other arguments “lack any sophistication and nuance.”

Equal time: Bruce Baker, an associate professor at Rutgers University, was among those called out. Needless to say, he’s not backing down. He said while the new data is an improvement from previous state analyses, it still is subject of some of its own “misstatements and spin.” For one, he questioned the data about how the state defines low-income students, claiming his more precise approach is widely accepted by researchers. For another, he pointed out that comparing individual charters against only their home district’s averages and not individual schools is simplistic in its own right.

What’s next: The report is listed as “interim,” since Cerf said he was seeking an independent outside review of the data.

The final word, for now: “We look forward to that independent review,” said Arcelio Aponte, the state board’s president. “This is more detailed than we have previously seen, but there is certainly a long way to go.”