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Beware the guise of democracy

There is a bill moving through the New Jersey Assembly that is particularly lousy, in part due to its specious language, but mainly because it facilitates the status quo by hampering the incentive for charter schools to do what they do best: innovate.

The piece of legislation (A 3852) seeks to put any and all charter school applications to local referendum, thereby transferring all duties of application evaluation –a process that traditionally requires weeks if not months of thorough scrutiny and targeted inquiry by education professionals– to a swift popular vote. Operating on the pretense of democratic principle, the bill’s sponsors would like for you to believe that the backwards operation of New Jersey’s Office of Charters has all along been the result of too little input from education stakeholders at the local level, e.g. principles, board members, and parents. This argument is populist positioning and little more: a guileful use of the symbolic American prerogative– the ballot box. It acknowledges neither the root of the problem with the state’s current authorizer or the need for a certain level of expertise and objectivity when it comes to deciding which applications do and which do not merit consideration for a charter. Instead, it tosses the application process into the arena of popularity– where a charter is measured not by its expressed, detailed need in the community but by its popularity, or attractiveness to the majority.

Innovation is risky, daring, and creative.  How can charter schools explore innovative means to educating children if they must combat well organized, union-funded anti-reform forces impugning their worth?  Creative ways of educating children better will always be met with structural resistance in the public system– it threatens business as usual.  Thus, if approval by referendum is successful, public charter schools, by their very nature laboratories of innovation, will suffer setbacks heretofore seen in districts with weak voter turnout, namely urban and rural territories: a sure result of local administrative reform opposition.   The effect of such ‘populism’ will be less, not more innovation

New Jersey legislators should be wary of such a bill.  They should support a governance system like those in Michigan and New York that introduces multiple authorizers through universities– increasing the transparency and fragmenting the centralized power structure of the NJ Office of Charters.  This is the best step towards reforming New Jersey’s charter application system, not a deceptive “democratic” injunction upon the process.

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