A perennial subject of education policy in New Jersey, charter schools are about to get yet another review from state policymakers, maybe this time with a twist.
State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet is embarking on a review of the state’s burgeoning charter school movement, with an eye on addressing both performance and budget issues in the schools and their host districts.
But 20-plus years since New Jersey first enacted the law creating the schools, the twist this time — or at least the first time in a decade — is growing questions about how much the administration will support the movement going forward, as it has clearly slowed down new approvals and expansions since Gov. Phil Murphy took office.
In the latest cycle of applications, the administration this month rejected the last of the bids for new charter schools opening next year, after also rejecting five expansions last spring. One new school is opening under a previous cycle of applications and two others opened this year, but it is a clear slowdown from former Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure and the state’s explosive growth of charters.
Repollet, at last week’s State Board of Education meeting, sought to assuage questions about the administration’s stance on the controversial schools, specifically saying there was no deliberate moratorium on approvals and the review was only part of a system-wide assessment.
Repollet: ‘…need to modernize and change’
“Before we do anything, we are going to assess the landscape and get feedback from everybody,” the commissioner said. “We are not going to get it from just one side, pro-charter or anti-charter.”
“We need to modernize and change,” Repollet continued. “This has been 20 years now, and we need to look at that.”
The commissioner and his staff have reached out to stakeholders on all sides of the debate concerning charters, and his staff said he plans to visit nearly a dozen schools to talk to educators and families.
Repollet said forums will be held around the state, and the department will come back with recommendations to the state board. He cited as the biggest issue the financial pressures on both charter schools and their host districts that pay for students to attend the charter schools.
“I think the governor made it very clear that we look at public schools, charter schools, renaissance schools as one,” he said. “I want to make it very clear, we are no anti-this or anti-that. We are pro-quality schools.”
Some support, some skepticism
Groups that have been enlisted in the review have shown a range of reactions, from welcoming the invitation to coming with a dose of skepticism. Of the former, among the most influential is the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that has been a close ally of the governor and frequent critic of the state’s previous policies on charters, especially those under Christie.
“We are confident that the Murphy administration and the Department of Education are serious about the need for a thoughtful review of the charter school law,” said Steve Baker, the NJEA’s communication director.
“We have been calling for this type of review for a very long time,” he said. “It’s long past due and we are glad that this administration is finally addressing the issue.”
Save Our Schools NJ, the parent-led group that has been a leader in the criticism of charters, also welcomed the review and the invitation to be part of it.
“We support the Murphy Administration’s initiative to update and reform New Jersey’s more than 20 year old charter school law,” said Julie Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ Community Organizing.
“The current charter school funding formula is very damaging to school districts and the charter school evaluation criteria leads to greater segregation and competition with school districts. We know New Jersey can do a better job than this.”
Not surprisingly, the charter schools’ advocates were far more circumspect.
“New Jersey’s charter schools are providing more than 50,0000 New Jersey students, predominantly minority and low-income families, with life-changing choices and educational opportunities,” said Harry Lee, interim president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.
“It is critical that the voices of families served by charter schools are heard and listened to during the review. We hope the charter review isn’t a forum for anti-charter school special interests to attack and undermine the choices our families have made.”