Opinion: It Sure Looks Like DOE Willfully Broke Charter Process to Appease NJEA

Laura Waters | October 12, 2018 | Opinion
Did ‘political payback’ matter more to Murphy and Repollet than the wishes of parents desperate for alternatives to poorly-performing public schools?

Laura Waters
Let’s say you’re an informed parent who lives in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, New Jersey’s capital city, and your child is zoned to begin kindergarten next September in the Trenton City Public Schools district. You know that students not reading at grade level in third grade are far less likely to achieve academic success — even graduate from high school. You also know that at the school your child is zoned for, Parker Elementary School, only one in four students meets that bar, about average for this long-troubled district.

Let’s say you’ve been counting on access to a public alternative that appeared close to a sure thing: the opening of the new Capital City Charter School, right in your Chambersburg neighborhood. You know this prospective K-5 school already has an excellent facility lined up and has made it through the grueling first round of the New Jersey Department of Education’s charter authorization process.

You also know that the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Mercer County, UrbanPromise Trenton, Greater Trenton, and MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce have heaped plaudits on the school’s pending arrival. You recently attended an exultant meeting at the Trenton YMCA with other prospective parents who, aware of the 1,200-student waiting list at Trenton Foundation Academy Charter School, demanded more school choice. Some of the parents at that meeting wanted to enroll their children right there.

35,000 children on waiting lists

And now we move from the hypothetical (all based on fact, as documented in voluminous filings) to reality: The Department of Education, a mere mile-and-a-half away from your downtrodden neighborhood, tossed the whole charter authorization process out the window.

What happened? Why did the DOE ignore its own scrupulous process that charter applicants view as gospel? Is it a “stealth moratorium,” a tacit sop to the NJEA after Gov. Phil Murphy said he would “pause” new charter school approvals? Is it a lack of personnel, given the recent firings at the DOE? Is it dysfunction? Is it animus? Is there truly, as reported this week in NJ Spotlight, “no deliberate moratorium on approvals” but simply a delay in deference to “a system-wide assessment?” Is it disbelief that 35,000 children, almost all black and brown and low-income, sit on New Jersey’s charter-school waiting lists?

These are all open questions. But we do know this: The DOE once had a transparent and well-functioning process for authorizing new charter schools but has now rendered that process opaque, provoking mistrust, anger, and a serious loss of credibility.

The way this is all supposed to work, according to the DOE’s precise timeline, is that aspiring charter operators first file Phase One Applications, which run about 75 pages. If deemed “qualified,” they move on to the second step, Phase Two applications, which run about 200 pages. Then school leaders have “Applicant Capacity Interviews,” this year scheduled, according to the timeline, between August 27 and 29.

Without explanation

Once again, let’s move from the hypothetical (which never presented a challenge to previous administrations) to this year’s sorry reality. First, the applications for Phase One were not released to prospective applicants on the promised date. Okay. No biggie. The NJ Charter School Association advised the 13 hopefuls that they should use last year’s template to compile their 75-page applications until the overdue forms were released. Everyone made the April deadline.

According to the DOE schedule, applicants would be notified no later than May 18 at 5:00 p.m. if they made it to Phase Two. But that date slipped by with no communication from DOE offices, despite repeated inquiries and efforts by applicants and the New Jersey Charter School Association. Meanwhile, the 200-page Phase Two applications were due July 16 at 4:15 p.m. but, once again, there was no template available until a month past its due date.

Finally, diverging wildly from its own timeline with no explanation, the DOE sent out letters that only two applicants made it to Phase Two: Capital City Charter School and the Jersey City Montessori Charter School.

I spoke with the founders of both schools, Paul Disdier of Capital City Charter School and Myani Lawson of the Jersey City Montessori Charter School, who described to me their efforts to adhere to established process by using old Phase Two templates and, at the end, pulling all-nighters to adapt their submissions when the new templates were finally available. They submitted their documents on time and waited to hear about the requisite interviews for Phase Two candidates, scheduled for the end of August.

Disdier put it succinctly: “Radio silence.”

Summarily rejected

Finally, through the static on September 30, on the last possible day and without the customary interviews, the DOE announced that both Phase Two applicants were summarily rejected. The letters to Disdier and Lawson said that reasons for rejections “would be forthcoming.”

We’re not taking bets on that.

Maybe there were flaws in the applications. Maybe the governor feels compelled to pay deference to NJEA’s market-share-based anti-charter stance after failing to fulfill his oath to “eliminate PARCC on Day One.” Maybe the commissioner is overwhelmed. Maybe the DOE doesn’t care about those Latino parents in Chambersburg who were attracted to a school that promised strong academics, an emphasis on social-emotional development, a dual-language program, and a longer school day and year. Maybe the DOE doesn’t care about the parents in Jersey City who can’t afford a private Montessori-based program for their children but can gain access to this specific teaching style through a public charter school.

The process isn’t broken — although I’d be the first to argue that our 23-year-old charter school law could use some tinkering. The DOE broke the process. It also broke the hopes of parents in Trenton and Jersey City desperate for public alternatives.

If only those parents and their children mattered more to Gov. Murphy and Commissioner Repollet than obsequious political payback.

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