Op-Ed: Half-Truths Mask Reality of Charter Accountability

Nicole Cole | July 29, 2015 | Opinion
New Jersey charter schools face extensive review and oversight requirements that far surpass anything traditional public schools must meet

Nicole Cole is president and CEO of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.
When did our public education system become a zero-sum game for our children? Instead of focusing on mechanisms that can turn around our failing schools and improve student outcomes, the discussion around public education has become a schoolyard bully match with traditional public-school defenders attacking the successes and very existence of public charter schools, regardless of their achievements or demand from public-school families.

These attacks are veiled attempts to distract folks from the real issue: We must do a better job of educating every child and creating more quality seats for the children and families who demand more academic options and better quality in their classrooms. It is unfortunate that those who purport to be supporters of public education espouse rhetoric that is firmly rooted in misrepresentations of the realities families and students face every day, but even worse, these “supporters” devote their energy to tearing down a sector of public schools instead of working to improve traditional public schools.

In New Jersey, 87 public charter schools serve nearly 40,000 students — less than 2.5 percent of the school-age population of the state. With more than 20,000 students and families waiting for a seat in a charter school, it is clear that there is not only parent demand, but public need to expand the number of high-quality educational seats across the state. The reason for that demand is simple: New Jersey’s public charter schools work and they are held to incredibly high standards of accountability and oversight in terms of student outcomes, operations, including demographics, and fiscal compliance.

Since 2011, the state Department of Education has increased focus on the charter-school authorization, oversight, and renewal processes to ensure a high-quality charter-school sector. Detractors will tout the fact that public charter schools do close when they do not meet performance expectations, while in the same breath, decry that public charter schools are not accountable. The simple fact that public charter schools have been closed — many of which were opened before 2011 — proves that there are strict accountability measures in place ensuring student success and fiscal and operational compliance. If the high-stakes performance measures imposed on charter schools were imposed on traditional public schools, the public-school landscape would be very different.

The Office of Charter Schools examines the operations of public charters in accordance with the binding contract that each school signs with the DOE. This contract is aligned to the Charter School Performance Framework, a framework that sets very high and very specific standards for student outcomes, which includes a focus on curriculum, planning, organizational capacity, and financial stability. None of which is exclusive of the additional requirements made in each individual charter agreement according to the school’s mission and educational philosophy. Charter schools are also subject to a DOE review process that supersedes any accountability measure for traditional public schools in both scope and breadth.

Public charter schools operate with the knowledge that their charters will be revoked and the school will be shut down if they lack annual fiscal compliance or fail the thorough renewal processes (four years initially and every five years thereafter) and ongoing monitoring each year. Charter schools understand that if their performance does not meet expectations, parents will pull their kids and the DOE will shut them down. This not only produces a high-quality sector, it ensures that the public dollars allocated to public charter schools are working for parents and taxpayers — with academic success, high school graduation rates, and university acceptance as the ultimate return on investment for students, their families, and their larger communities.

New Jersey public charter schools are highly accountable and far more exposed to real consequences for any failures. The opportunity for expansion of high-quality seats in some of our state’s highest-need districts is critical to ensure a promising future for every child.

Instead of attacking the success of public-school students attending charters, and making claims that truly do not address the complex realities of funding, accountability, and student outcomes, we must come together and focus on what’s at stake for all children: their education. For anyone questioning the success, authenticity, or mission and merits of our state’s 87 public charter schools, we invite you to visit several of our schools: meet the staff, engage the students, learn more about the extensive review and oversight systems, and understand what’s at stake. Only then can you make an informed decision.