Under the leadership of Commissioner Christopher Cerf, the New Jersey Department of Education has taken critical steps to advance the quality of public charter schools across the state. In closing five failing charters, instituting rigorous oversight, and making well-considered, thoughtful approval decisions to open nine new schools, the department is demonstrating a commitment to the premise we believe to be fundamental to successful chartering: charter schools can demonstrably improve public education, but only if they are excellent.
As recent performance data demonstrates, New Jersey’s charter schools are largely on the right track. In the five largest urban school districts in New Jersey, a higher percentage of students in charter schools are demonstrating proficiency or higher when compared to students in their respective urban school districts. In Newark, for example, charter schools performed 25 percentage points higher than district schools in math and 21 percentage points higher in language arts in 2010 – 2011.
Even as nine new public charter schools prepare to open in September to serve families in predominantly low-income communities, there continues to be overwhelming demand for charter schools. Indeed, 20,000 New Jersey students are still on waiting lists for public charter schools. These students — and every student across the state — deserve access to high-quality public school options of all types.
We believe that the Department is working towards this goal by implementing a rigorous new charter authorizing process rooted in national best practices that will directly facilitate the growth of high quality-charter schools in New Jersey. Working with us at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the Department has created a new performance framework for evaluating charter schools. This sets the academic, organizational, and fiscal standards by which all New Jersey public charter schools will be evaluated and measures all charter schools by the same standards year after year. By utilizing this framework in the charter approval and renewal process, New Jersey officials have expanded the stringent standards by which each and every public charter school will be evaluated, ensuring that they are all high-quality and meeting their mission.
The framework will also allow the Department to release an annual report on the status of charter schools, giving current charter school parents an ability to better track their child’s school’s performance, while providing prospective charter school parents with comprehensive information about public school options. An annual report will require more transparency, ensuring that all New Jersey education stakeholders — parents, teachers, school leaders and the public charter school authorizer — will be able to make informed decisions when evaluating school quality.
Over the past 18 months the department has adopted many other practices that support quality in all new and existing public charter schools. Of all these new practices, the most important is that public charter schools will now be evaluated based on academic outcomes, not on inputs — an approach that we believe should be adopted by authorizers across the country.
Strong authorizing practices lead to better public charter schools, which is in turn is better for New Jersey communities, families and students. The Department’s new practices and performance frameworks are important advancements to improve education and opportunity for all of New Jersey’s children.