NJ's Charter School Charade

Amidst the ruckus surrounding Gov. Christie’s $819 million cut in state aid to public schools we’re detecting a spike of attention to charter schools, often the only recourse for motivated children and parents entombed within dismally-performing urban districts. For example, the Star-Ledger looks at a group of 55 Newark educators from both traditional and charter schools whom have started meeting regularly to compare ideas and share successful practices. The Record discusses the lack of public funds available to charters, “far less than what they actually need to operate” since “they receive 60% to 70% of what regular schools get.”

While there is no shortage of reasons for NJ’s lack of charter schools – count lack of governing agencies, political will, and inequitable funding arrangements among them – one issue that is getting more attention is the opposition of NJEA’s leadership. This is old news. For years NJEA has followed its parenting organization NEA’s lead in circumscribing charter schools within the narrow confines of short-term “laboratories for innovation,” intended to experiment with innovative techniques and then shut down once successes are (theoretically) transferred to the “real” public schools.

Here’s the problem: those successes can not be transferred to the “real” schools because local contracts bar that sort of innovation.

The Star-Ledger coverage of Newark’s unlikely alliance quotes Jose Aviles, principal of Barringer High School (where 65.3% fail the language arts HSPA and 73.5% fail the math), who says that “the constraints of the teachers’ contract has prevented him from exploring the major innovations used by charters.”
"The advisory concept — that’s when a teacher has a group of kids and they meet with them on a weekly, monthly basis — that’s something I’m trying to implement," Aviles said, but added that ideas such as longer school days, limited tenure, and after school strategy meetings are prevented largely by union-negotiated contracts.
It’s not that charter schools have some hidden ineffable strategy, some potent elixir that produces high academic achievement in poverty stricken neighborhoods. They simply have access to logical supplements – longer school days, limited tenure, after-school hours, citing from Mr. Aviles' list – barred by local bargaining agreements. DOE data on Robert Treat Academy in Newark, a K-8 charter school and one of those “laboratories of innovation,” shows that only 6.1% of 8th graders fail the language arts ASK and 2% fail the math assessment. Robert Treat, one the partners in the Newark alliance, has strategies out of reach to public schools because of NJEA recalcitrance.

Another example: yesterday’s NY Times editorial page cites a study from the Center for American Progress that looks at charter schools’ “culture of accountability”:
Charter schools run on public money but are often exempt from union contracts that can influence how and when teacher evaluations are done. In many conventional schools, for example, tenured teachers are evaluated only once every three or four years. Evaluations typically consist of one or two short classroom visits. Nearly every teacher passes, even at failing schools, and an overwhelming majority get top ratings.
If charter schools in NJ are allowed to live up to their stated purpose – those much hallowed laboratories of innovation – then logically our chronically failing urban schools should be implementing successful strategies like longer school days and years, limits on tenure, and teacher accountability. If those strategies are not being transferred to schools like Barringer High – and they’re not – then we need to reexamine the ways in which NJEA's leadership is empowered to scuttle the academic hopes of the non-charter school children in cities like Newark.

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