Op-Ed: Virtual Charter Schools Raise Real Questions for Education in New Jersey

Deborah Cornavaca | July 11, 2012 | Opinion
Where's the evidence that virtual charters will outperform their 'brick and mortar' equivalents?

The New Jersey State Board of Education is considering a set of regulatory changes proposed by acting Commissioner Cerf designed to significantly change how charter schools operate in New Jersey. Perhaps the most significant change Cerf proposes is removing the term ‘contiguous districts’ from the definition of a charter’s potential enrollment area, thereby facilitating the operation of statewide virtual charter schools (N.J.A.C. 6A:11-1.2). There are currently six pending applications for virtual charter schools, four considered hybrid and two that are purely virtual, that could be approved as early as this Friday.

There are two central questions that we must ask this week, therefore. First, how can Cerf claim to have the authority to grant final charter to a virtual charter school, when he acknowledges through his proposed regulatory changes that he does not possess the appropriate regulations? Given that these regulatory changes are not even being voted on by the New Jersey State Board of Education at this week’s meeting, acting Commissioner Cerf should be forced to acknowledge that neither current charter school law, nor regulations, can support the approval of these schools.

Second, as providing high-quality charter school programs is the stated goal of acting Commissioner Cerf, and indeed the justification for the regulatory changes he proposed, how can he justify even considering introducing virtual charter schools into New Jersey? Earlier this year Cerf shut the doors on Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton due to what he stated was a poor academic record and low graduation rates. Emily Fisher had the mission of educating those children who otherwise might not even be in school, and they worked in conjunction with the public school district to help children that could not remain in district.

So, while Cerf shuts down Emily Fisher for poor academic performance and low graduation rates, he is intent upon opening virtual charter schools that empirically have poor academic performance and low graduation rates. That three of the proposed virtual charter schools have contracts with the for-profit company K-12, Inc. is another red flag. K-12, Inc. has been closely scrutinized for their poor performance and fiscal mismanagement, while making profits for their investors.

How can Cerf rationalize closing down Emily Fisher, a local charter that has invested over a decade trying to help a community, as he proposed to open the door to a poorly performing, out of state, for-profit company offering a virtual education? And in the process, he offers no mechanism to fix the egregious funding inequity of virtual charter schools collecting the same 90 percent per-pupil allocation that all charter schools receive, even though their costs are far less.

We must hold off on regulatory changes, in particular virtual charter schools, until such time as Cerf demonstrates an understanding of our current charter program. If he took the time to do an evaluation as he promised he would do over a year ago “as soon as humanly possible,” I am confident he would discover that local communities have valuable input to bring to the decision making process and need to have a place at the table, if not a vote, regarding charter schools in New Jersey.

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