Op-Ed: It’s Time to Repair New Jersey’s Broken Charter School Law

Julia Sass Rubin | October 12, 2011 | Opinion
Instituting local control of New Jersey's charters would go a long way toward fixing outstanding problems

New Jersey communities are being torn apart by our broken charter school law, with charter schools and traditional public schools suing each other and with charter school parents pitted against those whose children attend traditional public schools.

Fortunately, the New Jersey Senate has an opportunity to stop this discord by repairing our state’s charter school approval process.

Charter schools are publicly funded and regulated but privately controlled schools. New Jersey’s charter schools are approved exclusively by the state’s Commissioner of Education, regardless of the wishes of the host communities. Yet funding for charter schools comes out of those host communities’ public school budgets. This has created significant tensions at the local level and growing resistance to new charter schools, especially as public education dollars have shrunk while the number of charter schools has increased dramatically.

In June, a bipartisan majority in the New Jersey Assembly took an important step toward repairing our broken charter law by passing legislation requiring local approval for new charter schools. The next step is passage by the New Jersey state Senate, where the bill also has bipartisan sponsorship. Although this legislation is supported by three out of four New Jersey residents, including many charter school parents, it has encountered resistance.

The critics put forth four types of arguments against allowing local communities to approve new charter schools.

First, they claim that the very idea of local control is a radical innovation that would preclude the creation of new charter schools.

Ironically, it is New Jersey’s current charter school law that is dramatically out of alignment with the rest of the country. New Jersey is unique in allowing its state government to force local communities to pay for unlimited numbers of new charter schools, with no concern for the wishes of those communities. Across the United States, 90 percent of all charter school authorizers are local.

The critics’ second argument is that local control is not necessary because charter schools are funded at only 90 percent of a district’s per-pupil spending. Since the district gets to keep the remaining 10 percent while educating fewer students, charter schools actually save the district money.

Unfortunately, public education funding does not work that way because of high fixed costs — the price of educating a class of 24 students is almost the same as a class of 21. So if three students from each classroom leave a traditional public school to attend a charter school, the traditional public school loses funding, but the cost of educating the remaining children stays basically the same.

The sending district also has to pay to transport students to the charter school, regardless of how much that might cost. Highland Park, for example, is spending $36,000 this year to transport 18 students to a charter school in adjacent New Brunswick.

Furthermore, most charter schools educate fewer limited English proficient, special needs, and very poor children than their surrounding traditional public schools, and some have very high rates of student attrition, with the most challenging students the likeliest to return to the traditional public schools. This leaves the traditional public schools with a concentration of the most expensive-to-educate students, but with fewer dollars with which to do so.

The critics’ third argument is that local control is not necessary because parents will vote with their feet — if there is not enough demand for a specific charter school, it will not be able to open. Once again, however, this is not the case.

An East Brunswick-based charter school, for example, has consistently failed to attract enough students from its home district. Rather than close, the school asked the New Jersey Department of Education to grant it a broader target geography from which to draw its students. The Department of Education agreed, and last year the neighboring community of Highland Park received an unexpected midyear bill for $61,847 for four Highland Park children who had transferred to the charter school.

The critics’ fourth argument against local control is perhaps the most worrisome. They discount the idea of approving new charter schools via a local referendum, or even local boards of education, by claiming that such processes are too vulnerable to external influence and that voters, particularly those who are low-income, are not knowledgeable enough to make the right decisions. They prefer to leave the charter school approval process to impartial experts who can make such decisions in an environment removed from any political considerations.

Unfortunately, such impartial and apolitical experts simply do not exist. More importantly, if democratic processes are inferior to a wise, all-powerful ruler, why have elections at all? How can we trust those easily influenced and uninformed voters to select the right mayor, senator or president?

For all its limitations, democracy is the best form of government in existence. It also is the way most New Jersey communities govern their public schools, whether by voting on school board members, school budgets, or bond issues for new school construction. There is no reason to abandon it now.

It is time for the New Jersey Senate to listen to the will of the people and help heal the divisions within our communities by bringing local control to New Jersey’s charter school approval process.

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