Op-Ed: New Jersey Can No Longer Afford to Have A Weak Charter School Law

Carlos Perez | September 20, 2011 | Opinion
It's essential to boost the number of institutions empowered to authorize and monitor charters

New Jersey has a dismal record when it comes to getting extra education money from Washington.

Most people remember the state’s lost bid for up to $400 million in “Race to the Top” funds last year. But that’s not the only rejection notice the Department of Education has received from Washington.

Over the summer, New Jersey lost its bid for $15 million for charter school startups. That’s not an insignificant amount to schools struggling to cobble together enough funding to open their classroom doors.

What makes this rejection even worse is that it marks the third consecutive year the federal education purse-string holders have said no to New Jersey’s charter schools.

So why did the state lose out? This one wasn’t because of an application error. It was more fundamental. The federal review panel found that the New Jersey charter law was wanting. The members said the law wasn’t what it should be when it comes to the number of institutions empowered to authorize and monitor charters. That was the most often cited shortcoming, but there were others.

Spotty oversight of the school performance and inequitable funding were two.

The Obama administration isn’t the only one to cite inadequacies of the New Jersey law. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranks New Jersey 26 out of 41 when it comes to measuring up to a model law.

Now is the time for New Jersey to act, especially since the $250 million federal program that provides startup funding for charter schools is about to be changed. Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed with bipartisan support a bill that calls for improving collaboration between traditional and charter public schools, improves facilities funding programs and urges states to work with charters in serving all students.

None of these policy areas are even mentioned in New Jersey’s 15-year old charter law. There are several ways to improve the law to ensure New Jersey doesn’t lose out of federal funding again.

How the legislature goes about the task — with a backpack jammed with a political agenda or with an earnest intent to improve the charter system — will go a long way in determining how many kids will be afforded the education that charters offer.
This state review comes at a crucial time for charter schools, which finally have an ardent supporter in the governor. His administration has plans for adding 45 to 60 new charters every year. Nine new charter schools are opening their doors to serve students, bringing the total to eighty.

Most on the review federal panel thought that number was realistic, but all noted that significant changes to the charter approval process were necessary for it to happen.

Currently, only the state Department of Education can authorize and monitor charter schools. As the number of charter applications multiplies significantly, it will be necessary to have a number of high-quality, nonpartisan institutions with the power to approve and oversee them.

Numerous other states including New York, Colorado, Michigan, and Indiana allow multiple institutions to grant approvals for charter schools. In fact 31 other states (of the 41 with charter laws) have approval processes rated better than New Jersey’s.

The lack of multiple authorizers was cited again and again by the federal panel members.

The panel’s report said that vesting all power in the state education administration causes practical as well as political problems and doesn’t provide for a stable environment for charter schools.

As one reviewer put it:

“NJDOE is currently the only authorizer. No evidence provided that the legislature will pass the bill for multiple authorizers. It was difficult to determine from the information provided whether the changes would remain if the current administration were to leave.”

The message couldn’t be any clearer. New Jersey is losing millions in federal education dollars because the law is inadequate. The New Jersey Charter Schools Association has recognized that reality for some time and has been working to bring the state law into conformity with standards characteristic of a high-quality charter school program.

We welcome changes that would provide for more intense performance reviews and clear standards that must be met for a charter school to remain open.

In fact, the association supports a proposal for a fixed-term, renewable, performance-based contract between a charter school and its authorizer.

But to accomplish tighter quality control the state needs help. The law must allow the state to authorize more institutions to be involved in the charter school system and provide clear authorizer accountability.

Other areas of the law are in need of revisions as well include ongoing monitoring of schools and sufficient oversight from the state.

One of the panel’s members noted:

“Although a number of reports and data is 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.”

Another concern was inequitable funding. It’s a problem that both the federal review panel and the National Alliance have noted.

By law, New Jersey’s charter school students are to receive 90 percent of the classroom funding that their counterparts in traditional public schools receive. In practice that percent is much lower, about 71 percent on average. Add to that charter schools receive no funding to cover facilities or other capital expenses and it’s clear that charter school students are being shortchanged.

All these changes are necessary if New Jersey is to have an efficient charter school system that serves its students well.

After being told time and again that the law needs revising the state’s leaders need to act.

New Jersey’s children can’t afford to wait any longer.