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Creating successful charter schools for New Jersey

by Jeanne Allen and Kara Kerwin
The Record
June 5, 2013

New Jerseyans have sadly never had an opportunity to witness the benefit of a truly statewide charter school environment that helps children succeed, all schools improve and educators thrive. Unlike most other states, New Jersey law rests all authority to approve and vet charter school applications with the state Commissioner of Education.

The law unofficially discourages applicants outside of major urban zones and funds charters more than 20 percent less than traditional public schools. It has created an environment where local school district opposition to charters is left unchallenged by the state whose job it is as the charter authorizer, and as most other good authorizers do, to work to ensure schools under their authority can be successful. For these reasons and more, New Jersey continues to earn a ‘C’ grade, ranking 20th weakest out of the nation’s 43 charter school laws.

Bureaucracy and operational interference by the state Department of Education have discouraged many applicants, and hurt many existing schools whose limited budgets cannot handle constant re-regulation of the very non-achievement related policies and procedures that charters were intended to escape. Indeed, many charters throughout the Garden State succeed despite heavy administrative burdens, lower per-pupil funds and a hostile political climate. Their achievement is well documented, and yet, year-after-year, the state fails to manage, even with best practice models, the schools that currently exist and continues to operate an application process that is dysfunctional at best.

Just more bureaucracy

That’s why the proposal introduced by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, calling for local voter approval of charters, imposing more bureaucracy in the name of increased standards, and creating a new nine-member charter school review board is the antithesis of sound charter-school policy. It is another attempt by opponents to squash the modest charter movement that New Jersey has developed over the past 18 years.

Diegnan has heeded the cries of the interest groups parading as a Save Our Schools movement who believe any choice that is not made by centralized districts is a bad choice. SOS, the New Jersey Education Association and related groups all espouse a centralized school district system only, one that eliminates a parent’s right to choose and forces children to be branded by their zip code.

Innovation in New York

Meanwhile across the river, the State University of New York, in addition to local school boards and the New York State Board of Education, is designated as a charter school authorizer and has a proven track record of approving quality charter schools. In most cases across the country, universities have proven to be exceptional and highly effective authorizers. They bring a wealth of innovation to the K-12 sector, both in curriculum and infrastructure. They possess a naturally high degree of public scrutiny and competitiveness and have a real interest in improving the pipeline for their students. Such is the case for SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, responsible for the Empire State’s highest-quality charter schools.

Diegnan’s charter proposal is truly a step in the wrong direction for New Jersey’s charter school movement. The idea of creating a charter school review board has proven to be bad policy in other states as it only adds yet another layer of bureaucracy to the school approval and oversight process. If the goal of New Jerseyans is to improve educational outcomes for its students, lawmakers are just a ferryboat away from seeing what truly works in K-12 education reform.

It is time for innovative, truly independent and multiple authorizers to turnaround the state’s mediocre charter environment and free students falling through the cracks in the traditional public school system.