Gov. Christie Champions Charter Schools, But Will Talk Lead to Action?

The governor makes some big promises for charters, but has delivered a mixed message on the subject in the past

charter school kids
Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to highlight charter schools in his State of the State address yesterday is an interesting one, given that New Jersey’s chief executive has delivered a mixed message on the subject in the past.

Christie originally touted charters as a signature accomplishment to handle the unprecedented expansion of students served by the schools, especially in Newark and Camden.

But after a big first wave of approvals early in his administration, when more than 20 charters got the green light, approvals dwindled to just a few a year.

Funding for charters has been mixed as well, with the state providing little new in the way of direct help, but stepping in to protect the schools from cuts — often at the expense at districts.

And there has hardly been a big push to revise the state’s 20-year-old charter school law, a topic that is becoming a perennial debating point in the Legislature but shows little sign — at least publicly — of resolution.

Nonetheless, Christie did pick the topic over other important education issues that have captured his attention previously, ones that arguably could have played better for his presidential aspirations.

One of these is the governor’s pivot on the Common Core State Standards — culminating in task force recommendations on Monday — or the state’s continued interventions in some of its most troubled districts. Neither was mentioned.

And Christie’s approach appeared more incremental than sweeping, proposing a loosening of regulations on charter and more permissive rules for the kinds of innovations that charter schools were meant to embody in the first place.

That’s not small stuff, by any means; charter schools have long complained that regulations in New Jersey are among the strictest in the country. Christie said he heard the message when he attended a roundtable of charter leaders in November.

“Instead of giving charter schools the autonomy they need to deliver great education outcomes, we’re regulating them using almost all of the same regulations that apply to traditional public schools,” he said yesterday.

“It’s not good for innovation and it’s not good for attracting more innovative charter school operators to our state.”

Without providing many details in the speech or afterward, Christie said his administration would pursue regulatory changes in areas like teacher certification and school facilities, without mentioning statutory proposals.

“Today, I’m announcing that my administration will aggressively prioritize regulatory relief for charter schools,” the governor said. “We’re going to explore ways to create greater flexibility in the teacher certification process for charter schools, and we’re also going to explore ways to make it easier for charter schools to find facilities.”

He also brought up what has been a tough legal issue, creating specialized charter schools that would serve specific students, including those on the autism spectrum or with other special needs.

A charter serving autistic students in Newark was initially approved by his administration in 2011, but never opened when questions were raised as to whether such specialization was permissible.

Charter school and other reform groups praised the speech, saying his attention to high-quality charter schools was an important distinction.

“The foundation for today’s charter-school successes has been laid with the administration’s increased emphasis on accountability through the rigorous charter school application, renewal, and review processes,” said Nicole Cole, director of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.

“We look forward to measures that will support continued access for children who deserve 21st century facilities with qualified educators and innovative academic programs for every learner.”

The chief criticism came from the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that was in Christie’s cross-hairs at a few points yesterday.

“At a time when the governor and the NJ Department of Education have inflicted stifling measures that threaten the success of traditional public schools, he is calling for less accountability for charter schools,” said NJEA president Wendell Steinhauer in a statement.