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Grade for New Jersey's charter school system slips, according to national report

by Diane D’Amico
Press of Atlantic City
April 5, 2012

New Jersey’s charter schools remain underfunded and too highly regulated by the state Department of Education, according to an annual report on education reform.

The Center for Education Reform report gave New Jersey’s charter school law a “C” as the state slipped from 19th to 24th among the 41 states, as well as the District of Columbia, with charter school laws.

The drop in rank comes as suburban backlash against charter school funding grows, though Gov. Chris Christie and acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf continue to promote the concept in struggling school districts.

“There are a lot of problems in New Jersey,” Center for Education Reform President Jeanne Allen said in a teleconference on the report, which was released Monday. She said the state’s charter schools remain highly regulated, get less funding than public school districts, and are authorized and monitored only by the state Department of Education.

In a phone interview, Allen said the fact that almost a third of all charter schools in the state have closed indicates there is something wrong with the current law and how charter schools are regulated. She said that nationally the closure rate is about 15 percent.

Christie has proposed several changes to the law, but in 2011 got Legislative support only for a provision to allow private schools to convert to charter schools. Christie wants to allow successful private companies to open schools and expand the pool of authorizers to other public entities, such as colleges or public school districts.

“These findings speak to the critical need to update and strengthen New Jersey’s out-of-date charter law,” DOE spokesman Justin Barra said in an emailed statement.

There are several bills in the state Legislature to modify the law, but some are on opposite sides of the issue. One bill would expand the entities that could authorize charter schools to include state colleges in an effort to open and monitor more schools. Another would put a three-year moratorium on adding any new schools.

The most controversial would put new charter schools up for a public vote, a provision popular in suburban districts concerned about the money being taken out of the public school budgets to fund charter schools in their towns. That bill was approved by the state Assembly in March but is still in committee in the Senate.

Allen said the push against charters in suburban districts is not new, but it does intimidate legislators worried about re-election. Allen said New Jersey has just chosen not to approve any more charters in suburban towns.

Barra said that, consistent with law, proposed charters must demonstrate how they will serve an unmet need in the community.

“There are many ways to define need, but the most important is academic performance,” he said.

Allen said charter schools also need more support. She said independent authorizers would work with schools to help them succeed.

“We leave New Jersey charter schools on an island,” she said. “There is no real support system from the state, and while we hear talk about change, we don’t see much action.”

The primary criteria used by the CEF to grade the laws was how they are authorized, how much operational autonomy they have, the number of schools allowed and equitable funding.

At last week’s N.J. Charter Schools Association conference, President Carlos Perez once again advocated for equal funding in New Jersey. Under the law, charter schools get 90 percent of the per-student cost in the district where they are located. They also get no state aid for buildings, a major hurdle for new schools trying to open.

At the same conference, Cerf said the department is working toward an easier regulatory environment for charters, but also tighter standards and increased accountability.

Currently four charter schools operate in Atlantic County and two in Cumberland County. Cerf announced last month that the state would not renew the charter of the academically struggling PleasanTech Academy Charter School in Pleasantville, which expires June 30. The approved new Atlantic City Community Charter School has requested another planning year, and the Global Visions Charter School in Egg Harbor City has withdrawn its application. The Compass Academy Charter School in Vineland will open in September with grades kindergarten, first and second.

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