Explainer: Charting the Development of New Jersey’s Charter Schools

Charter schools are nothing if not controversial, but what's beneath the chatter?

First launched in New Jersey in 1997, charter schools have in the past five years become a hot issue in New Jersey — both for the alternatives they provide students and districts, and the debate they have fueled over the role of public education. Charter schools are public schools operated by private nonprofit groups that are outside the governance of the local district. Instead, they are overseen by the state through a “charter” or specific renewable agreement.

Their significance

The charter movement started with just 13 schools and grew slowly during the first decade. Now numbering close to 90 schools and serving 30,000 students, they have matured into a powerful force in the state, especially in urban districts where they are concentrated. In Newark, for example, close to 20 percent of public school students are in charter schools, including a few that are among the district’s highest-performing schools. They have also sparked some backlash in both urban and suburban communities that have resisted the schools and what they call “draining” of local funds and students, as well as the lack of local say in their expansion, among other reasons. National charter management organizations have also made major inroads in the state, including the nonprofit KIPP Network and Uncommon Schools, and for-profit management firms are also now helping run two new schools in New Jersey.

Charter school funding

Much of the debate on charter schools is how they are paid for, with a local district required to pay 90 percent of the district’s per-pupil costs for each one of its students attending the charter. The formula has some exceptions, and charters contend that the average they receive is closer to 70 percent of actual per-pupil costs. Public funds are also prohibited from being used to build a charter facility, leaving schools to rely often on private fundraising or borrowing. However, public funds may be used for rent or leases, including in empty space in districts.

Charters: better, worse, or about the same as district schools?

Maybe all of the above. Depending on the study or how they are compared, charter schools are very similar to the district schools that they draw from: some are strong, some are weak, and many do about the same when it comes to test scores and other quantitative measures. True, some are exceptional in terms of student performance, far surpassing their local peers, and a recent study by Stanford University researchers — albeit a contested one — found that on average they outperform their local districts. But 30 out of more than 115 approved charter schools have been closed or not renewed by the state, many of them cited for financial problems and increasingly for poor performance.

Key debates

For all the discussions about how charters and district schools compare in student performance, much of the recent debate is on how their student enrollments compare. State law requires that charters be open to all those apply, and when demand exceeds available seats, a fair and open lottery must be held. But critics point out that despite this requirement, charters have smaller special-needs and at-risk populations than their district counterparts, bringing a new segregation within a single community. Backers say that the concern is exaggerated, and that the state holds charters to close enrollment requirements. Debates have also cropped up about charters that appear geared to specific populations, such as Hebrew or Chinese language schools, as well as those that have been proposed for special-ed students.

The Charter School Program Act of 1995

Signed by then-Gov. Christie Whitman, New Jersey’s charter school law has not seen much, if any, change in 18 years, and lawmakers have called for new act to meet the state’s changing demands and circumstances. A prime point of contention is whether to require a local vote on any new charter. Others have sought changes in how charters are funded, reviewed, and approved. A hot-button topic is whether the new law should allow for innovations such as online or virtual charters, which are now not explicitly mentioned.

Key players

  • Gov. Chris Christie and state education commissioner Chris Cerf have been big cheerleaders for charter schools, although they have lowered the number of new approvals in the past two years in the face of the local pushback and added rigor to the application process.
  • The New Jersey Charter Schools Association is headed by Carlos Perez.
  • Prominent charter school leaders include Ryan Hill, the New Jersey director of the KIPP Network, and Mashea Ashton, chief executive of the Newark Charter School Fund.
  • More critical voices have come from leaders of the New Jersey Education Association, the Education Law Center in Newark, and the Save Our Schools NJ advocacy group.
  • Rutgers education professor Bruce Baker has conducted considerable research on charter’s performance and enrollment.
  • Legislators leading the discussions about a new charter law include state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, and state Assembly members Patrick Diegnan Jr., Mila Jasey, and Troy Singleton.
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