Education Commissioner Refines the Rules for Charters

John Mooney | September 12, 2011 | Education
Increased accountability, broader student access top the list in Cerf's edict

With the administration expected to announce a new class of charters in the coming weeks, acting education commissioner Chris Cerf has detailed steps that are intended to improve the oversight of new and existing schools.

But questions remain about the capacity of the state to meet its promises. And the announcement stops short of some of the measures that Democratic legislators have asked for to amp up accountability even more.

Cerf released a letter sent to all charter school heads on Friday. It starts with praise for the opportunities and education that the experimental schools have provided students.

But it continues in a more critical tone:

“Not all charter schools are serving students at the levels they deserve,” Cerf wrote, mentioning that the state closed two charters last year. “At the department, we take the exchange of autonomy for accountability very seriously.”

Cerf’s push is a mix of some new requirements and what he said were clarifying and focusing of what’s expected of charters. In the letter and a separate press call, he said there would be new emphasis on student performance, namely on state tests, and on student access.

Schools previously held to reporting overall scores, for instance, will see them analyzed against their host districts’ and other schools with comparable student populations.

Enrolling and Recruiting

In terms of access, Cerf said new attention will be on enrollment practices at charter schools, aiming to directly address criticism that they can be exclusionary in whom they accept and retain.

Cerf said new guidance would be provided on what’s required for enrolling and recruiting students. He stressed that he knows of no cases where a school has violated existing exclusionary laws, but he said he is aware of the impression left when schools have pre-enrollment interviews that may prove a barrier to some. He also said schools will be required to recruit students from a wide range of venues in order to ensure that highest-need students are aware of the opportunity.

“We are quite mindful of the spirited public debate out there — it’s a positive thing,” he said in the press call. “More debate stimulates us to improve the accountability system, all the better.”

But how much any of his pledges will lead to substantial change is the next question. Considerable work lies ahead to increase the state’s capacity to oversee charters, an issue that both critics and supporters agree has long needed to be addressed.

And it will be an immediate question, too, with not only the new charters coming through the pipeline but also 20 schools currently up for their five-year renewal.

For instance, while the state’s charter school office continues to be beefed up, it is still short of the numbers that Cerf pledged several months ago. And the state remains the sole agency approving and reviewing charters, with legislative proposals to increase the number of authorizers still pending in the Statehouse with no assurances of passage before the upcoming election.

Democratic Demands

What’s more, the moves stop well short of measures proposed by Democratic lawmakers and now pending in the state Senate. For instance, a bill passed by the Assembly in June and sponsored by state Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex) and Mila Jasey (D-Essex) would require charter schools to be monitored the same as traditional public schools. It would also demand charters account for any students who have left during the year, a move aimed at the concern that low-performing or misbehaving kids are counseled out of the schools.

Charter school advocates welcomed the heightened attention on accountability, saying it can only strengthen the movement. They agreed it wasn’t so much new requirements but a greater attention to holding schools to what exists.

“This is Chris Cerf stepping up and saying he’s going to do this right,” said Rick Pressler of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, who is also former director of the Greater Brunswick Charter School in New Brunswick.

“He’s giving the requirements some clarity and purpose and narrowing them down to what they believe matters, which it seems in this case is test scores,” he said.

Pressler added, though, that the expansion of authorizers remains a critical hurdle for the state to clear, as well as further staffing of its own charter office.

“They haven’t staffed up the way we had anticipated,” he said. “But this shows the will and energy are there.”