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NJ Spotlight: Administration's New Message to Charter Schools: Quality Not Quantity

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With only four of 60 charter applicants approved, Christie and Cerf signal that the rules are changing for charter schools — as are the politics

By John Mooney
NJ Spotlight
October 3, 2011

When the Christie administration last week announced it approved just four new charter schools out of nearly 60 applicants, it came with a message of quality over quantity from Gov. Chris Christie’s top education officials.

But there were clearly a few factors in play, from the politics of the upcoming legislative election to the changing rules in the department itself. For example, two of the approvals announced last week were part of larger networks of schools that are gaining favored status with the state.

Nevertheless, for anyone thinking the movement is slowing, 25 more schools are still slated to open next fall, the biggest new class yet. And there may be more to come.

Politics Matter

There was no doubt that Gov. Chris Christie was hearing grumbles from his Republican base. Many of his suburban legislators either voted for or abstained on new controls on charter schools being trumpeted by Democrats.

Christie himself had long been a lightning rod for the debate over charter schools, making their expansion a centerpiece of his education platform. When his administration last spring approved 23 new schools — by far the largest group ever — he went into Newark to announce the news schools himself.

But even before that, resentment was growing in the suburbs about the sudden advent of the charter schools in their midst, drawing dollars from their cash-strapped districts.

And as the months passed, Christie and his acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, began to back off and publicly questioned whether charter schools were needed in relatively well-performing districts. Christie even said so in one of his national speeches in Iowa, before he started openly flirting with a run for the White House.

In the end, none of the half-dozen high-profile applications for suburban charter schools were approved, including those for Mandarin and Hebrew language schools. The one arguably suburban approval is a school in Cherry Hill that was predicated on drawing students from neighboring Lawnside, a low-income community, officials said.

Process Matters

With the backlash came some revising of the state Department of Education’s application process as well. Starting this summer, Cerf has clearly sent a signal that he wanted to increase both the staffing of his charter school office and the rigor of its process.

To that end, he brought in a national charter association to help lead the application review, and Cerf and department officials said the strength and capacity of applicants’ academic programs and their organizations would matter first and foremost. The fact that just nine of the 23 charters approved last spring were able to open this fall was a cautionary tale.

‘The first bar was the quality of the programs, their capacity and their ability to meet the timelines for opening,” said Carly Bolger, director of the department’s charter school office. “These four were pretty obvious for us in terms of being the strongest.”

“There was a pretty sizable gulf between what a lot of them said on paper and what they could show when they came in,” she said in an interview this weekend.

But others weren’t so pleased.

“We’re happy that good schools were approved, but I question a review process that couldn’t find more than 4 out of 60 applicants,” said Jeanne Allen, director of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter group in Washington, D.C. that assisted some applicants.

“I think they were being cautious, but maybe too cautious when there are tens of thousands of children needing these opportunities,” said Allen. “And it is inconsistent with the governor’s philosophy and his drive for more options for children.”

Quality Matters

While nearly two-dozen new charter schools were approved in the last round, barely that many even got the second-round interview this time, officials said. And even some of those were making their third or fourth try.

That leads to the question to how many strong applications were there and whether New Jersey had tapped out the market, at least for the time being. State officials wouldn’t say as much, but Bolger indicated there was clearly a dearth of quality.

“If there were more we had confidence in, we would have approved them.” Bolger said. “We didn’t go in looking for a certain number. This was the number we had confidence in.”

That leads to what the department does see as quality, and it was no coincidence that two of the four approved came from charter networks with what it said were established track records.

The one approved in Trenton comes from the Scholar Academies organization, with schools in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The one approved in Camden is connected with the Promise Academy charter schools in that city. The Jersey City charter school was not part of a management organization but was modeled after existing schools in Brooklyn and Springfield, Mass., Bolger said.

And noteworthy in the state’s announcement on Friday was that it also approved the expansion of two existing charter networks in Newark, both connected with larger charter management organizations, KIPP and Uncommon Schools. Those expansions at TEAM Academy and North Star Academy will add another 1,000 seats.

But others question whether New Jersey was giving up on those charter applicants coming from the communities they serve. “This is basically rejecting the grass roots that have lived and thrived in New Jersey,” said Allen.

And Allen wasn’t much impressed with the department’s stated reliance on those with track records, pointing to the history of one of the giants in the industry. “KIPP started without a track record,” Allen said.

Plenty More to Come

With the charter approvals from last spring, there are still 25 charter schools slated to open in the fall of 2012. And that is not counting another round of applications that will be arriving in the DOE by the next deadline of October 15, meant as an expedited round for more established applicants.

That has left some of those critical of the administration wary of celebrating too much from the small number approved in the latest round.

Julia Sass Rubin of Save our Schools NJ, a grassroots group that has led the call for changes to the charter school law, said the expected addition of more charter schools in the next round is all the more reason to put restrictions in law that give local communities binding say in whether charter schools open.

“Whether its four schools or 40 schools approved, communities are still disenfranchised,” she said. “This may cool things off for the election, but we still need a change in the law.”

The administration, led by Cerf, has opposed some of those changes, especially the one that would give local communities final say over whether a charter would be allowed to open. But whether that happens or not, Bolger said she is pleased with the progress, even with one of the smallest round of new charter approvals yet.

“It’s less about putting up numbers of new schools,” she said. “That’s great, but my goal is serving more kids. And we’re feeling pretty good about that.”