With the Christie administration last week blocking one controversial charter school from opening, New Jersey’s charters are once again in the spotlight. Adding to that high-wattage scrutiny is the suggestion that the state this summer will expand the size and scope of the charter movement.
In a late Friday release, the state Department of Education announced it would not allow the Regis Academy Charter School to open this fall in Cherry Hill. It cited the lack of viable facilities, as well as questions about the veracity of the school’s application.
It was a significant decision, quieting for now what is the latest argument about charters moving into suburban communities. The Cherry Hill school district had appealed the approval on several legal grounds.
But this is just one of several tempests stirred up about New Jersey charters. The administration is slated to decide next week if as many as two dozen more charters will be opening in the fall, including the state’s first online schools.
The department is finishing its so-called “preparedness reviews” of schools that have been approved but still needs their final charters before they can open. The reviews include examinations of planned enrollments, facilities, budgets, and other key components. The state has said it will make the decisions on final charters for the fall by July 15.
Among the schools up for their final charters are several connected with K12 Inc., the nation’s largest online education company, which is making its first major inroad into New Jersey.
K12 is on track to operate one statewide school out of Newark, an entirely online operation for kindergarten through 12th grade. It is also in partnership to run a second online school out of Monmouth County that would serve at-risk high school students. In addition, it is involved in two other schools that would have a more blended learning model of online and face-to-face instruction.
The all-online schools have been controversial on several fronts, both here and nationwide. Democratic legislators have sought to put a moratorium on new online school until further studies can be made. A bill for a one-year moratorium passed the Assembly but has yet to be posted in the Senate.
The administration has been coy as to its intent with these schools. On the one hand it has refused to say if it will clear them to open. On the other, it is seeking regulatory changes that could make them easier to operate. Those proposed regulations are before the state Board of Education, and have drawn their own scrutiny.
Still, acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has been more and more outspoken in pressing both new and existing charter schools, saying that he would only be getting tougher with them. He closed one school this spring for low student performance, and placed two others on probation.
“We take our responsibility to ensure that only high-quality schools open very seriously,” Cerf said yesterday. “We have rebuilt our organization, refined our accountability measures, and have been very careful about which schools to grant, while holding existing schools to a high level of accountability.”
One of those schools on probation, the Adelaide L. Sanford Charter School in Newark, is under state investigation regarding the propriety of its lease and potential conflict of interest, according to a report in The Star-Ledger yesterday.
A Critical Reception
The Regis Academy Charter School in Cherry Hill had yet to open, but already faced a firestorm of criticism as it attempted to get its final charter this summer.
Almost from the moment that Regis Academy was approved, the local school district challenged the state’s decision about the readiness of the school’s programs. It also raised a broader question: Is a charter school needed in a high-performing district like Cherry Hill?
It was just the latest suburban community roiled by the arrival of a charter, or just the prospect of one, with similar battles playing out over the past year from Princeton to South Brunswick and Montclair to Millburn.
As assistant commissioner Evo Popoff said in a letter released Friday, the state’s decision against Regis was made on fairly narrow grounds: would the academy have a site in place for students to attend school. Regis had changed sites, sometimes providing conflicting information, and there were continued questions as to whether its current lease was signed with the property’s true owner.
“A lease agreement in which the landlord is not in possession of the facility simply does not provide the Department with the sufficient comfort that Regis has a viable location for its school,” Popoff wrote.
“Moreover, these facts, when taken along with misstatements in Regis’ original application, raise serious concerns regarding Regis’ reliability and integrity.”
The Cherry Hill superintendent, Maureen Reusche, said this weekend that the district was obviously pleased with the decision. Cherry Hill had been forced to set aside $600,000 for the 33 students it would lose to the new charter, and she said it can now look for other uses for the money within the district.
Still, she said the decision was just a start, and she was not yet convinced the administration was taking a new approach. Regis was only stopped from opening this fall, but nothing precluded it from trying again for next year. Regis may also appeal the state’s decision.
“The question that remains to be asked is if everything had been aligned on the facility, would they have been granted a charter,” Reusche said. “I can’t say it is a new and different department. That remains to be seen.”
And other critics contend that Regis is just the tip of the iceberg, with the state’s oversight and review process not yet capable of fully vetting charters before they open.
“The decision with Regis resulted from a lot of pushback in Cherry Hill,” said Deborah Cornavaca, an organizer with the Save Our Schools NJ, an advocacy group. “For the other communities where these charters are landing, they didn’t have the same opportunity, but doesn’t mean those schools are any more ready, either.
“The situation with Regis speaks to a systemic problem,” she said, “and until the state’s process is opened up, who knows what is falling through the cracks.”