Opposition to Online Charters Heats Up State BOE Meeting

Innovation chief approved as BOE seems unlikely to slow down charter push

The State Board of Education yesterday got an earful on the Christie administration’s push for charter schools and other so-called innovations, both pro and con, some quite public and some a bit quieter.

The public part was further deliberation and a crowded public hearing on the administration’s controversial regulations proposed for charter schools, including some new powers for the commissioner and new language that will codify online charter schools.

Forty people signed up to speak, a far bigger crowd than usual and voicing a host of concerns about the new rules, from the philosophical to the logistic. Nevertheless, while the state board members listened intently, few of them seemed all that intent to slow down the changes.

The quieter part was the state board’s quick approval earlier in the day of a new assistant commissioner to oversee charter schools and other non-traditional programs as acting Commissioner Chris Cerf’s new “Innovation Officer.”

After some discussion in closed session, the board unanimously approved for the job Evo Popoff, a former senior vice president of EdisonLearning, a for-profit education company where Cerf once worked.

Popoff, who attended the meeting but wasn’t made available to reporters, has held a host of positions at EdisonLearning, the New York-based corporation that was an early pioneer in private school management companies. Popoff, a lawyer, joined Edison in 2004, and his resume includes work with local districts in the company’s school improvement, extended learning and online programs.

Cerf spoke briefly afterward about the hire, the last of his major appointments since taking office 16 months ago.

“Evo has extensive experience working with and improving public schools, and also someone who impressed me for the breadth of his vision and his capacity to execute that vision,” Cerf said, adding they did not know each other at Edison and may not have even overlapped.

Starting this week, Popoff will earn $138,000, just shy of Cerf’s $141,200 salary, officials said.

Popoff will have plenty to ponder as Cerf’s push on the innovation front has been among his more controversial, especially around charter schools. And that was on full display yesterday, as the usually sleepy board meetings grew crowded by afternoon as advocates and those who signed up as “concerned citizens” filled two small hearing rooms to object to the charter regulation changes.

Those testifying came mostly from suburbia, communities like Princeton, Westfield, South Brunswick and Cherry Hill, where the growth of charter schools under Christie have seen their stiffest resistance.

Some said the new charter regulations were an outright threat to public education, contending among many complaints that they violate existing state law and could potentially cost local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The destabilizing impact of these measures cannot be overstated, and you can be very sure that the destabilization will be dramatic and immediate,” said Andrea Spalla, a member of the Princeton Regional Schools board of education.

Also testifying were familiar groups such as the New Jersey Education Association, the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the Education Law Center and New Jersey School Boards Association. The Education Law Center called for the regulations to be rejected, the school boards group called for a moratorium on new virtual charters.

The proposed regulations actually say little explicitly about online schooling, but make the intent clear. They would remove a requirement that charter schools serve contiguous districts, language that were seen as a block to statewide online schools.

Still, even without the change, the state has already given preliminary approval to two online statewide charter schools, both seeking to open next fall and already accepting students for enrollment.

Cerf has said that there remain some questions to work out around the schools, including funding and oversight, and he said yesterday that those questions have yet to be fully resolved. The decision on final charters for this fall’s opening is expected in July.

Still, there appeared little resistance on the state board itself.

“I think all these people are way ahead of where we are headed,” said Ilan Plawker, the board’s vice president who led one of the two hearings. “We’re not talking about allowing random charters throughout the state.”

In the other room, board members said the administration’s expansion of the charter school office and new accountability rules for the charters, including in the new regulations, contradict the critics’ claims.

“I think there are a lot brakes in place already,” said Claire Chamberlain Eckert, a board member.

Still others said some important points were raised in the hearing that would be taken into consideration. “This is what our job is, listening to the public,” said Peter Simon, another member.

And the board’s president, Arcelio Aponte, said the public input would be important.

“For the most part, I am comfortable with what the administration is presenting, but we always want to make sure there are checks and balances,” he said.