Two Newest Paterson Charters Are Well Connected — With Established Networks

The latest charter schools approvals may indicate the state is leaning toward providers with proven track records

The Christie administration’s quiet announcement last week of the preliminary approval of two more charter schools — both in Paterson — points to the emergence of larger charter networks as the dominant force in the movement.

After the close of business Friday, the state Department of Education announced the newest schools, both belonging to charter networks that have made their marks elsewhere.

One is the first New Jersey foray of the Ascend Learning charter schools, which has deep ties to New York City. The other is the latest in a line of charters that started in the state under the leadership of Nihat Guvercin, with schools already in Paterson and Garfield.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said this week that there was no specific aim to bring more charters to Paterson, only that these were the two best from the nine applications that were filed.

“There is nothing about Paterson in particular,” Cerf said in an interview. “These were the ones that emerged with the highest probability of success. These are proven models with strong track records, and they both happen to be in Paterson.”

The nature of the latest application process favored schools from larger networks, with the state specifically reaching out to those with proven track records. The next round in April will allow for a wider field.

Still, Cerf said that these new schools add to a growing list of charter networks that have more than gotten their foot in the door in New Jersey, with organizations such as KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Mastery.

KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) is the largest of the group, not only continuing to grow in Newark but also close to finalizing another five schools in Camden.

“If you look across the board, we really have some terrific schools operating in New Jersey,” Cerf said, listing schools from larger charter management organizations. “We’re really aiming for success. We haven’t gotten them all right, but I think we’ve seen some really terrific schools.”

When asked whether the state was favoring the network schools, Cerf said he was seeking a balance.

“We’re looking at models that work, and definitely seeing some one-off schools that have tremendous potential,” he said. “But this is really hard work, and we are looking for good reasons to give a charter, and one point of evidence is they have a track record of success.”

The addition of any charter schools in the state prompts debate these days, and charter organizations especially draw questions. The approval specifically of the Paterson Collegiate Charter School, the latest Ascend Learning charter school, has raised some questions as to whether it belongs in New Jersey.

“Everyone else has been home grown for us,” said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund. “This obviously isn’t that, the first time we have seen an external charter group want to come here.”

Others maintained the lack of local input on the two new charters continued a pattern for this administration.

“The Christie administration has demonstrated time and time again that local wishes play no significant role in charter approvals in the state of New Jersey, despite declarations that the application process requires ‘solicitation of input from the public,’ “ said Darcie Cimarusti, an organizaer with Save our Schools NJ, a grassroots group that has spoken out against the state’s charter school policies.

“The approval of these two particular applications in Paterson, without local input, to [applicants] with significant out-of-state and international ties, seems a clear indication that the days of local control of ‘mom-and-pop’ charters in New Jersey are long gone,” she said.

A call to Ascend Learning was not returned this week, but Cerf contended its track record in Brooklyn was enough proof for him. “It’s the highest-performing school in Brooklyn with high-poverty students,” he said.

Still, he was cognizant of the hot politics around charter schools, especially with Gov. Chris Christie running for reelection. Cerf was spotted with his top charter school staff outside the governor’s office last week, the day before the latest charter announcement.

There is no shortage of charter news to come. The state is about to decide on 16 charter renewals, close to a quarter of the state’s charter school roster overall. Another big decision comes this spring when Cerf has to decide whether to green-light two charter schools that would be predominantly online. The state’s dominant teachers union has sued the state trying to block the final approval.

And battles continue from town to town over the prospect of the alternative schools opening up, the latest in Florence Township over a charter school there that was seeking to expand. In the face of public pressure, the school withdrew its expansion plans.

Still, Cerf maintained on Monday that the Christie administration has not pulled back from new charters, but instead has focused more on the highest-quality models. He said the two approved in the latest round were consistent with past approvals.

“It’s about the same ratio as the past few years,” he said. “The pace has been very constant.”

Twenty-five charter schools have opened since Christie was elected, 18 since Cerf took office. A total of 46 have been approved under Christie, the bulk of them in 2010 when the administration approved 36 new schools. Since Cerf came on board, just 14 have been approved. In addition, five charter schools have been closed due to poor performance and mismanagement.