Christie Proposes Giving Top-Performing Charter Schools New Flexibility

John Mooney | October 6, 2016 | Education
Education chief says easing certification rules for teachers would be five-year pilot program

charter school kids
On a pledge to provide more freedoms to New Jersey’s charter schools, the Christie administration yesterday presented new regulations for the alternative schools that would include essentially waiving many of the state’s certification rules for educators in the highest-performing ones.

But as with anything related to charter schools in New Jersey of late, the changes are sure to be hotly debated in the coming months, and parties from all sides yesterday predicted they are hardly a done deal.

Should charters have a different set of rules?

“That’s a big question, that’s a super-huge question,” said Mark Biedron, president of the State Board of Education. “My concern is you go back 20 years, yes, charter schools were to elevate student performance, but it was also to share practices. Have we seen that? I don’t know.”

Twenty years after the state’s first charters opened, Gov. Chris Christie said in his State of the State address that he hoped the growth of the schools would be one of his lasting legacies, pointing to the more than 20 new charters his administration has approved in seven years and the doubling of students attending charters.

And while the governor could provide few new resources for the schools, the rules proposed yesterday after five months of drafting do provide some flexibility that charter school operators have long sought.

Included are many technical requirements, some that officials said have actually already taken place in practice and policy. But several are significant, including a proposal to offer a new, wide-open “alternate route” for educators available to the top-performing charters.

[related]There would be some requirements in experience and knowledge, but under the proposed regulations, these schools could hire teachers and administrators without the same demands for coursework or other training.

The new regulations would also provide greater freedom for charter schools to use operating funds to secure facilities, not something now allowed under the state’s rules, and to have access to closed district buildings.

Another proposal sure to draw some attention is the allowance for single-purpose charter schools, such as those for one gender or special needs. Questions have been raised to the legality of such schools under state law.

Acting state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington said the moves are meant to provide more leeway for innovation, while maintaining the state’s oversight of the schools.

She said the certification changes would be a pilot for five years, and specific to only the best of the schools. “We are talking about a pilot and only under very specific circumstances,” Harrington said.

The reaction was clearly mixed among state board members, a group that has long been accused of being a rubber-stamp on most administration initiatives but does push back on occasion.

Among the supporters, member Andrew Mulvihill cited the department’s data showing that charters on average outperform the district schools in their host communities.

“The results we have seen are just spectacular, and how one can not be a fan of charter schools, particularly in the inner cities, is beyond me,” he said. “And I would like to say as one in the business community, let them loose.

“But that is not what has happened here,” he said. ‘You have provided with certain changes that are very well thought out, and actually allow you to keep a closer eye on charter schools … These are things that will make them do their jobs even better.”

But speaking next, member Edythe Fulton raised a host of questions. A former president of the New Jersey Education Association, Fulton said there was already a separate set of standards for charter schools.

“How much more will there be?” she said. “What else is on the table? It seems to me there will be even less requirements for those who want to begin charter schools.”

The NJEA was quick to come out against the proposals, calling them “reckless” and “misguided.”

“There can be no doubt that these amendments are designed for one purpose and one purpose only — to sell out New Jersey’s public education system to for-profit corporate charter school operators in the closing year of the Christie administration in order to put traditional public schools at a competitive disadvantage for years to come,” said NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer in a statement.

“The Christie administration seems intent on creating two sets of rules for two separate school systems,” he said.