Fine Print: Charters Not Renewed

John Mooney | March 5, 2012 | Education
Cerf points to low test scores, standards in decision to close schools in Trenton, Pleasantville

What happened: The state announced Friday that it would renew the charters of 16 charter schools, but not the charters of one school in Trenton and another in Pleasantville. The letters sent to the two schools laid out a myriad of problems at each school, two of the oldest in the state.

What it means: The Christie administration has gone out of its way to show how tough it can be on charter schools that aren’t performing. It has been a sensitive topic, as the administration has been a big cheerleader for the alternative schools since Gov. Chris Christie took office and angered communities where the schools are seen as a financial drain. But in this climate, the closing of the two schools also raised worries over how the state was making its decisions.

The reasoning: Acting education commissioner Chris Cerf has pressed hard that charter schools need to meet the state’s standards — mostly in student test scores and progress — to maintain their charters, which are up for renewal every five years. “We can and must continue to be impatient and hold all schools to account for results,” Cerf said in the announcement.

Who went wrong: The two schools seeing their charters not renewed are Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton and PleasanTech Academy Charter School in Pleasantville. They have until the end of the school year, and the decisions are open to appeal.

What went wrong, Pleasantville: At PleasanTech, a school founded in 1998 to be a laboratory for education technology, just a third of the students passed state tests. “The charter includes a number of ways to track and measure academic achievement; however, the school has not provided evidence of success,” Cerf wrote to the school. But it wasn’t just that, as Cerf cited high turnover of administrators and substandard buildings, among other factors.

What went wrong, Trenton: Cerf said the Trenton charter school, also founded in 1998, had shown a “culture of low expectations. “ With just a third of the students passing state tests, it is among the lowest 3 percent in performance in the state, according to Cerf. He added: “It was noted during classroom observations that few students were present, that classrooms were chaotic, and that there was little learning taking place.”

What happens next: The schools can appeal through the administrative law process, but odds are long. Otherwise they have been ordered to begin preparations for moving the students to other schools next year.

Praise, but . . . The state’s charter school association commended the state for holding schools to “rigorous quality standards” and said “those standards should be based on comprehensive data on student achievement and growth.” But in a statement from its director, Carlos Perez, the association also worried about overreliance on test scores. “It is essential that the Department of Education give weight to the unique missions of charter schools as they make their renewal decisions.”

Not to mention the impact on kids: A grassroots group that has been critical of the administration’s charter school policies also worried to how it would disrupt the students. Closing a school is incredibly disruptive, particularly for children whose outside lives also lack stability,” said Julia Sass Rubin of Save our Schools NJ. “These closings will have consequences for the host districts as well, yet the DOE makes the decisions unilaterally, as they do with new charter school approvals.”