Do Charter Schools Serve a Purpose in Successful DIstricts?

Anyone listening to the Assembly Education Committee’s four-hour hearing yesterday on the future of NJ’s charter school regulations would conclude this: that our legislators have accepted charter schools as a necessity for neglected kids stuck in failing schools. (Someone forgot to send Bob Braun the memo.) Committee Chairman Patrick Diegnan summed up the zeitgeist neatly: "I don’t think anyone disagrees charter schools are a part of the solution," he said. "However, they are not a magic bullet."

Magic bullet or not, there was a serious amount of sturm and drang expressed by administrators and residents in successful districts. Indeed, much of the hearing was devoted not to the primary beneficiaries of charter schools – poor kids in low-performing districts – but to the financial drag on well-performing districts who are side-swiped by, say, a school that offers Mandarin immersion. There was sort of an “Upstairs Downstairs” feel to it, advocates from wealthy towns like Princeton and Glen Ridge protesting the cash drain by tuition payments to superfluous alternatives while the “Waiting for Superman” crowd was down in the cellar.

So, what to do with aspiring charter operators in districts that provide a fine education to their generally well-to-do students? (See here for a recent New York Times piece on a growing interest in charter schools from wealthy families.) From The Record:
Rebecca Cox, the school board president in Princeton, argued the regulations should require charter applicants to prove there was a true educational need for their new school, rather than just a desire for it among a select group of parents. She cautioned against the spread of “boutique” charters for studying Hebrew, Mandarin and “the extensive recycling of plastics.”
From the corniced parlors of wealthy New Jerseyans, a charter school within their realm is an affront. After all, Princeton Public Schools provides stellar educational opportunities to its children. How exclusive can you get? Almost all the kids pass state standardized tests, and that’s with a special education population of 15.7% and an English Language Learners rate of 2.6%. At Princeton Charter School, all kids pass the tests, though nobody is considered an ELL, and the special ed rate is 2.8%. (Comparative cost per pupil is $17,290 at the traditional public and $12,007 at the charter.)

If there was a consensus at the hearing, it was a strong interest in requiring a district-wide referendum before any approval of a charter school, an effective death knell for aspiring charter operators targeting high-income areas. If Rutgers was a charter authorizer, for example, would NJ’s students be best served by a charter school in East Brunswick or a charter school in Camden?

The message from the testifiers was clear: we don’t need any charters. (Princeton Public Schools pointed to the $4.8 million in annual tuition paid to Princeton Charter School.) Maybe they’re right. As Chairman Diegnan pointed out (paraphrase here) to the representative of Princeton Charter School, my constituents would kill to go to Princeton Public Schools.

So do we limit new charters to failing districts, either directly through legislation or indirectly by requiring a public vote? (Translation: rich districts will vote charters down and poor ones will most likely vote them up.) How does that mesh with the dynamics of public school choice? Do we have one set of rules for poor kids and another set for rich ones? Does such an approach amplify the insulation of wealthy districts from poor ones? Or is the standardizing of charter school legislation across all districts, regardless of wealth or school performance, at best a pretense and at worst another nail in the coffin for our kids in the cellar?

In some ways this is a choice between philosophical inconsistency -- limiting school choice for some and not for others -- or the targeting of ed reform resources to those truly in need. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."