New Jersey Loses Out on $15 Million Federal Charter School Grant

John Mooney | July 29, 2011 | Education
Federal reviewers cite some progress, but still withhold funds for third year straight

New Jersey has again lost out on federal funding for charter school startups, with reviewers citing continued weaknesses in the state’s oversight. They also cited the state’s 15-year old charter law, which is now under debate in the Statehouse.

This is the third straight year the state has fallen short in the competition, losing a bid for $15 million. New York and Florida were the only winners out of 18 applicants.

But at a time when Gov. Chris Christie has made charter school expansion a centerpiece of his education reform agenda, losing for the second time under his administration was a jolt.

Last year, when the state missed out on $14 million, several charter schools said they were hamstrung without additional startup funds critical to their opening. This year, just a third of approved charters are opening in the fall, with some advocates saying the lack of federal grants was a factor.

Making the Best of It

The state Department of Education (DOE) put the best face on the rejection, saying there were a number of positive reviews for the progress the state has made. The reviews backed up the claim.

But state officials also pointed to the legislature, which has stalled in making proposed changes to the charter school law. These include adding new authorizers to approve and oversee the state’s charters. Currently, the DOE is the only authorizer, and until recently it was a badly short-staffed one.

“Unfortunately, our law is our greatest deficiency,” said Carly Bolger, director of the charter school office. “We lost whole points for not having multiple authorizers, no appeals process besides the courts, not enough autonomy.”

“Those are all fair points, and things we have been seeking to change,” she said.

The reviews also contained a number of pointed questions about the state’s oversight and support of charters. One reviewer said the state does not do enough to work with charters in evaluating their performance data.

“Although a number of reports and data are provided to the [state] and its employees, there is limited discussion of what they do with that data to ensure quality charters operate in the state,” the reviewer wrote.

Others said the state had not set clear definitions of “high quality” for the schools it wants to approve and promote. A key factor in the competition was a state’s ability to disseminate information about successful schools to others.

One reviewer said New Jersey provided examples of success and “is beginning to weed out poor performers. The applicant is developing a quality measurement.”

Yet under listed weaknesses, the same reviewer wrote, “the applicant fails to show system-wide quality.”

Changes Underway

Bolger said much of the review critiqued the system in place in April, and indicated considerable changes are already underway. A new application is coming out today, and the charter school office is undergoing a significant expansion in both staff and responsibility under acting Commissioner Chris Cerf. A new on-site review process for existing charters is also to be launched, she said.

“We have gotten further along, and are getting the pieces in place,” she said. “There are things in the works that at the time of application were not fully baked yet.”

Still, there was a clear sense of disappointment from several charter school advocates contacted last night, who said they wish the needed improvements would have been made since last summer’s rejection. That came just after New Jersey also lost in the federal Race to the Top competition.

“If you look at where we lost points, they are all areas related to the charter school law,” said Carlos Perez, director of the New Jersey Charter School Association. “We were already starting with a B application.”

“He said the loss is not insignificant to schools, given how many struggle to raise startup funds not covered by state and local monies, including facilities costs.

“This has a significant impact on the ability of schools to open up,” he said. “The entire school institution is built on these funds.”