NJ: Charter School Purgatory

The Record offers at timely look at the NJ’s (in)ability to promote charter school expansion, an important option for children stuck in chronically failing urban districts (as well as a requirement for Race To The Top funds). It’s one of our political hot-buttons, subject to wrath from the leadership at NJEA, as well as many local school boards. The piece gets at the heart of the pokey growth of charters in NJ: our lack of state funding for facilities.

We’ve had a charter school law for 15 years, yet enroll only 22,000 children in them out of a total public school population of 1.4 million. A new “fast-track” process put into effect by Gov. Corzine will result in only 3 new charter schools in September, in spite of the fact that there are 11,000 kids on waiting lists. Says The Record,
The biggest stumbling block is the lack of money for buildings.
In Newark, some charter schools hope they can use vacant space within existing public school buildings. Other groups have found homes in former Catholic schools, church basements and converted warehouses, borrowing to make renovations.
"Districts get their schools for free," [Rick] Pressler, [interim director of the state association of charter schools]. Pressler said. "We have to pay a mortgage or rent."
How do other states with healthy charter school growth manage the facilities issue? According to the Education Commission of the States, 40 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have charter school laws. About 75% of them provide facilities funding or some sort of financial assistance for facilities, while we stand proud with such diehards as Arkansas, Kansas, Puerto Rico, Texas, and Mississippi. (Okay: also Maryland and Iowa and Oregon.) For example, in Massachusetts facilities funding is embedded into the tuition formula for commonwealth charters. In Pennsylvania “the state department of education calculates an approved reimbursable annual rental charge for leases of buildings or portions of buildings for charter school use.” In Delaware, “school districts must make unused buildings or space in buildings available for charter schools and must bargain in good faith over the cost of rent, services and maintenance related to such space.”

If New Jersey is serious about education reform, then Gov. Christie and Commissioner Schundler will join the majority of the nation in facilitating the growth of charter schools by providing aid for buildings. The other option? Toss out the Race To The Top application and leave 11,000 kids spinning their wheels in schools like Camden High.