OPRA Request Reveals Charter Advocates’ Role in Application Process

Sen. Gill: Community representatives and traditional school educators conspicuously absent

Over the past year, the Christie administration employed an array of national and state charter school experts, educators, officials, and other advocates to help review applications for new charters, according to documents released under a public records request.

Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) filed the request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), and her office yesterday shared the state’s response of more than a dozen pages of names and emails.

Included in the first reviews were advocates from across New Jersey, including several charter school leaders. The latest round had a more national flavor, including top charter school officials from Colorado, Florida, and Washington, D.C.

Gill said yesterday the lists in both years was notably absent of traditional public school educators and community representatives. She also questioned the expense of nearly $125,000 for about two weeks work.

“It underscores the need for the local community to have more of a role in the process,” Gill said. “They have given charter school consultants more say in how money is spent on charter schools than the communities where they are located and will have an impact.”

“We should have a transparency and other voices that come to the table,” she said. “It locked out everyone but charter enthusiasts.”

Chris Cerf, New Jersey’s education commissioner, said yesterday he’s glad the names are out and said it was more of a legal issue that held up their release.

“I think it was just a back and forth among lawyers about protecting the application of OPRA, but I have long believed that was appropriate,” he said.

Cerf defended the reviewers and their pro-charter leanings as valuable to the process. And he stressed that the final decisions still rested with his office and the department.

“These are serious educators and quality people who want public education to succeed,” he said. “A central theme of charter advocates today is we need to be extremely thoughtful about who we give a charter school to, and we may have been too generous historically. Being charter advocates is not at all inconsistent with being concerned about quality.”

The identities of the outside reviewers had been the source of some controversy after the state Department of Education had initially refused to share the names last year, following what was the largest single class of new charter schools approved in the state.

Critics and others had questioned whether the reviewers last year and again this year may have had some bias and even conflicts of interest in serving as the first line of evaluation in the application process.

By and large, most of the reviewers were connected to the charter school movement either nationally or in New Jersey. Others were either Department of Education staff or active lobbyists or advocates.

Among the better known names in the 2010 round were Derrell Bradford and Shelley Skinner, senior staff to the Better Education for Kids New Jersey, an advocacy group pressing for tenure reform; James Deneen, author, formerly of the Education Testing Service; Kim Chorba, director of the New Jersey Network of Catholic School Families; and Josh Pruzansky of the Orthodox Union. Several New Jersey charter school leaders were also on the list.

The process changed for the latest round of applications, with just four new charter schools being approved out of 53 applicants. In that process, the state employed the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to assist in the reviews, and it brought in 14 consultants as team leaders, each paid $8,900 for a total of close to $125,000. State officials said those fees were paid by NACSA, and no state funding was used.

That list included charter school educators and advocates on the national level, including the head of the Atlanta charter school office, two of the top officials in Washington, D.C.’s charter school board, and the former director of charter schools in Denver.

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