Critics, Advocates Pump Up Volume of Charter-School Debates

After protest moves indoors, meeting of state Board of Education turns into lively discussion of whether NJ needs charters at all

princeton charter protest
Just when things seemed to have quieted down a bit, New Jersey’s charter school debates are back — full-throated and full throttle.

And unlike earlier battles before the Legislature and the occasional local school board, charter-school critics and advocates are taking their arguments to the state Board of Education and even the state Department of Education itself.

The latest skirmish came yesterday, when the state board heard testimony on the Christie administration’s proposals to ease some technical regulations on the alternative schools, starting with waiving certification requirements for teachers and principals in the highest-performing charters.

The proposed rules have been controversial from the start, with even board members themselves — several appointed by Christie — balking at some of the changes.

But yesterday’s public testimony quickly became a broader argument for and against charter schools in the state as a whole, especially their continued growth under Gov. Chris Christie as he enters his final year in office.

A group of parents and other critics led a noontime rally outside the meeting, decrying what has been overlooked in the discussion of new charter approvals: the expansion of existing ones.

For many of the protestors, coming from suburban communities like Highland Park and Princeton, the arguments were as much financial as philosophical, with the growth of the charters drawing more and more money from district coffers.

One speaker, superintendent of Franklin public schools John Ravally, said his district has seen a significant increase in the tuition and transportation outlay for charter-school students, climbing sharply from $5.6 million in 2013-2014 to $9.8 million this year.

“In a three-year period, this represents a 43 percent increase,” he said. “Most concerning, the commissioner has already approved an expansion of one of our charter schools, and is considering the expansion of a second.”

“And a third charter expansion is being considered for a new school,” Ravally said. “We are estimating if every seat was filled, that would be an additional $12 million plus in tuition and transportation. That is a serious budget challenge, where rapid charter expansion would be something insurmountable for us.”

Once the hearing moved indoors, the critics continued their refrain, including leaders of the New Jersey Education Association. The teachers union has been an outspoken opponent of the charter growth, even with more than 1,000 of its members working in charter schools, and yesterday, president Wendell Steinhauer continued the call for a moratorium on further expansion.

“The vision seeks to make two different school systems, with widely different standards and expectations,” he said. “Under this system, only for-profit or thinly veiled non-profit operators create and expand charter school … They lobby to reduce the rules and their own accountability.”

It was not all critics, however. One of the first to testify was Nicole Appice Davis, the mother of two children in the HoLa Hoboken Dual Language Charter School. In a school with a weighted enrollment system for students with special needs and low-income, she countered the claim that the school was causing more segregation in her city.

“HoLa Hoboken has changed my life and for my children in the best way possible,” she said.

“Please take serious consideration into seeing the school for yourself and speaking with us before making drastic decisions to shut us out,” Davis told board members. “The public schools in Hoboken are more segregated than they will admit. I’ve seen with my own eyes, and I’m friends with a lot of the disadvantaged kids who attend the public schools and sad to say, they are far from diverse as ours is.”

Discussion did occasionally venture back to the regulations at hand, with critics contending that the charters should face tighter rules, not looser, and advocates maintaining the flexibility was needed.

The board itself appears undecided on the most controversial measures. Board president Mark Biedron said there was hardly consensus on loosening the teacher certification requirement, for example, and raised the question about whether if it was good for charters, why not loosen it for all districts.

The proposed regulation would be a pilot for charters deemed “high performing,” which would be about 30 of the 82 existing ones.

But Biedron asked if the charters could show that similar changes three years ago to other teacher-licensing rules had yielded the benefits they claimed.

“How did that do, was that any better for kids?” he said after the meeting. “There’s lots of questions … They have tightened up on a lot of them, but there is a few out there and we will see where it goes. We are willing to look at everything.”

Under the board’s slow-moving process, the changes are not expected to be up for a final vote for at least several more months.

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