Prominent Lawmaker Seeks to Slow Down NJ’s Virtual Charters

John Mooney | May 22, 2012 | Education
Assemblyman Diegnan seeks six-month moratorium before approving new online charter schools

Credit: Amanda Brown
Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex).
As students continue to sign up for New Jersey’s first experiments with online charter schools, one leading legislator is asking the state to slow down.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, said yesterday that he is preparing legislation that would seek at least a six-month moratorium on new online charters.

If approved, how much impact the bill would have is uncertain. Five charters that are either full-time or so-called hybrid online schools have already been approved, although not yet granted final charters.

Diegnan yesterday said he wasn’t seeking to stop them from opening this fall. But he wanted to send a high-profile message that the state shouldn’t move too fast with a scheme that has more than its share of critics, if not outright opponents.

“I’m not looking for a long-term moratorium but something short term so we can at least get some information,” Diegnan said in an interview. “Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a time out.”

Expected to be filed in June, the legislation comes as online charter schools continue to gain a foothold in the state, but also draw increasing concerns on a number of fronts.

The largest of the five schools, the New Jersey Virtual Academy, has already signed up its full complement of 850 students for next year. The charter, based out of Newark, would be managed and staffed by the nation’s largest online education company, K12 Inc.

“We are moving forward as if we will be opening in September,” said Peter Stewart, K12’s vice president for school development.

The Newark Virtual Academy is one of four schools that K12 will play a prominent role in. The others include three more Newark charters — Newark Prep, Spirit Prep, and Virtual Charter — that are be based on a hybrid model, which mixes online and in-person classes. Stewart said those schools, each starting with 150 students, have also met their enrollment goals. (The fifth school is Merit Preparatory School, also in Newark, which will enroll 180 in the first year. It is not connected to K12.)

Diegnan said K12’s role in the schools as a for-profit, publicly traded company is one of the issues he wants to discuss. He said there also remain ongoing issues with how the schools would be monitored and funded, given the state’s existing charter law did not envision virtual schools and has no provisions in place for them.

Even if a moratorium would not prevent the approved schools from opening, Diegnan said they can at least be the test cases for the state before it OKs any more. None of the 36 applications under consideration for next year are online schools.

“Maybe we can see what happens with them first, before we move on to more of them,” Diegnan said.

These are issues that the Christie administration is considering as it moves closer to issuing the final charters, which must be done by July 15, after the schools have shown they will have facilities and programs in place.

The state’s charter school law has several provisions that stand as obstacles to online education, including one requirement that a charter serve specific and contiguous communities. The two online-only schools plan to draw from throughout the state. The other three would be specific to Newark.

In addition, the state’s current charter school law requires districts to pay the charters 90 percent of their per-pupil costs for each student who attends. But questions have arisen as to whether that should apply to virtual charters, where costs are considerably less than those of traditional programs.

“Those are all questions we are still looking at,” said Justin Barra, the state Department of Education’s communications director. “Those are things we will be looking at over the next two months.”

At the same time, the administration is quietly pressing for new administrative regulations that would address at least some of the issues, including one provision that would allow charter schools to serve students from disparate communities.