The Christie administration’s shift from approving new charter schools to expanding existing ones saw maybe its biggest surge yet yesterday, as the department announced 16 more charter expansions and just three new schools.
But there were some interesting twists in the announcement. The department approved expansion plans for some of the state’s largest and highest-profile charter networks yet turned down several smaller schools with similar aspirations.
And in one case, it approved a Jersey City school’s expansion while at the same time putting them on probation for having a half-million-dollar deficit.
The KIPP and Uncommon Schools networks in Newark, the two largest charter organizations in the state, both won approvals to expand that will widen their reach in the city to more than 14,000 students combined.
Meanwhile, expansion applications from Red Bank Charter School, Hatikvah International Academy in East Brunswick and Unity Charter in Morris were refused.
Red Bank and Hatikvah had both faced considerable community opposition to their expansions, including from Republican legislators in Red Bank’s case. State Education Commissioner David Hespe said in letters to the schools only that he had reviewed written and public comments in coming to his decision.
Other notable rejections were for expansion of the Discovery Charter School and Marion P. Thomas Charter School, both in Newark and among the state’s oldest and most-established charters.
In Discovery’s case, Hespe said the rejection was largely due to a sharp drop in the school’s student test scores under the new PARCC exams — just 4 percent of fifth-graders, for instance, met achievement “expectations” in math. The year before, the school had among the highest scores in the city under the previous NJASK tests.
Elsewhere, the state’s approval of the expansion of the BelovEd Charter School in Jersey came with a big caveat. While Hespe praised its academic performance, the school found itself on fiscal probation for having $428,000 deficit last year.
“Additionally, it is anticipated that in FY 2015-16 will continue to be in a deficit,” Hespe wrote. “Public schools cannot operate in a deficit.”
Hespe said that, overall, the approvals could increase total charter enrollment in the state by 10 percent next year to over 50,000 students in 89 separate charter operations, including several of the larger ones that operate multiple schools.
The education department’s moves reflected a promise made by Gov. Chris Christie in his recent budget address, where he pledged more freedom and support for charters.
“For years, this Administration has been committed to aggressively expanding opportunities for parents to choose a school that is best for their child, and today’s announcement continues that commitment,” Hespe said.
But much like the prior wave of new charters, which met resistance in some quarters, the latest expansion approvals are already facing their own challenges – including possible legal action.
The Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group, wrote to Hespe in late January, urging him to reject the expansion proposals in Newark on the grounds that such “unrestricted” expansions are not permitted under the state’s charter school law and would only further harm the cash-strapped district.
“We are also deeply concerned that continued expansion will exacerbate the already glaring disparities in the demographics of students served in Newark charters compared to (district)-run schools and will further concentrate the most at-risk students in district schools,” wrote David Sciarra, the ELC executive director.
The following new charter schools were approved to open in 2017:
The following expansions were approved:
These expansions were rejected: