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Times of Trenton: Charter schools caught in the middle of ideological fight

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By Carmen Cusido
The Times of Trenton
September 19, 2011

After 14 years in operation, Trenton Community Charter School somehow lost its footing. The state Department of Education noted low student test scores, inadequate lesson plans and sloppy record keeping before putting the school on probation and finally ordering it to close this summer.

Meanwhile, a group that wants to establish a Chinese-English immersion school in South Brunswick — Princeton International Academy Charter School — has encountered stiff opposition from the three school districts that would have to support it with a share of their tax revenues.

As charter schools come under increasing fire from a community skeptical that they are fulfilling their promise as fresh-thinking public schools, several pieces of legislation have been floated to either promote charter school formation or grant more power to restrict their proliferation.
“We are not geared up to provide the proper oversight once these charters are granted,” said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence). Turner is co-sponsoring a bill that would require voter approval of new charter schools. “That’s why we see an inordinate number of them failing.”
Although she thinks parents in failing districts should be given a choice where to send their children, Turner said legislation to allow taxpayers to vote for the approval of charter schools is essential.

But Ronald Brady, the head of school and co-founder of Trenton’s Foundation Academy Charter School, argued that allowing public referendums on charter school openings could hurt educational diversity.

“It subjects individual charter schools — an interest to, say, 30 percent of the population — to the opinion of the entire population,” Brady said. “It’s antithetical to what charters are about.”


In Turner’s district, Trenton Community Charter School was one of two charters that shut down this summer. Capital Preparatory High School was pressured to voluntarily give up its charter after it was investigated for financial mismanagement.

Hundreds of students from the two schools flooded back into the Trenton public school system this month, and harried school administrators have been fighting to obtain books, furniture and other supplies while hiring more teachers to handle the overload.

Last year Gov. Chris Christie began touting new charter school formation as key to his education reform program. Despite the headwinds caused by charter school failures and local opposition, fresh legislation has emerged to broaden the program.

One bill would allow hundreds of private and parochial schools across the state to convert to charters, provided they remove religious teachings and symbolism from the curricula and school facilities. The state would then oversee the converted schools. The bill has passed the Assembly.

Another bill promises to share oversight of charters rather than leaving near full responsibility in the hands of the Department of Education. While the state has a seven-person office in charge of monitoring more than 70 charters in New Jersey, new “authorizers,” which would include colleges and universities, would monitor charter schools on a more regular basis, allowing problems to be caught before they develop into full-blown disasters.

The authorizer bill is sponsored by Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), who said a school’s progress could be determined not just by looking at test scores, but also admission practices, teacher certification, attendance, curriculum, parental involvement, and other factors that help make a successful school.

“Where they see problems developing and occurring, they would alert the charter school, (but) they don’t tell them how to do it or tell them what to do,” Jasey said.


The problem with the current system is that schools get a thorough review only when their charters come up for renewal, Jasey said. That’s also a burden for the charter school administration, she said.

“One school leader described it as, ‘I have to produce five years’ worth of paperwork for the state’s review’,” she said.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, echoed Jasey’s concerns.

“The oversight hasn’t always been as strong as it could be,” Allen said.
The state Department of Education is “not equipped for the kind of work that it needs to do to be singularly focused,” she said. “It has way too many things to do.”

Allen said the DOE’s core strength is not creating and approving schools, but rather regulating educational programs and plans across the state.

According to the Center for Education Reform’s 2009 Accountability Report, of 19 charters that closed in New Jersey, 42 percent were shuttered for mismanagement, 37 percent for financial, 16 percent for academic and 5 percent for facility problems.

Most of New Jersey’s closed charter schools suffered from either being underfunded or managed poorly, according to the report.

Amid efforts to fix problems with the oversight of charter schools, enthusiasm for creating charters appears to be growing.

The state received 58 applications for new charters this year, a record for a single application cycle. No new charters will open this year in Trenton, which already has five of the schools. 
Julia Sass Rubin is a parent from Princeton Township whose daughter attends a charter school, but she is in favor of reforming what she calls “a broken charter law.”

“Our concern is that rather than closing down schools afterwards, the state should be focused on opening schools that are going to succeed,” said Rubin, who belongs to the group Save Our Schools N.J.

Rubin noted that in a traditional public school district, residents vote on proposals such as bond issues for new buildings. By contrast, the charter school process leaves the local community out of the decision-making process on new schools, she said.

“There’s community opposition and anger,” Rubin said. “It’s their tax dollars, but not their decision.”