Charter School Envy, Part II

Education Law Center, which has put out a 10-part proposal for revising NJ’s charter school law, also supports voter approval for new charters, just like the Diegnan bill, the NJSBA resolution, and SOS-NJ’s agenda. (See post below.) But ELC’s emphasis is different because it represents poor urban schools, not suburban communities. ELC’s position is that charter schools need regulation because they don’t serve a representative cross-section of the community, “creaming off” not-as-poor kids, those without disabilities, and native speakers. DOE oversight of charters, says ELC, should be as unrelenting as that of traditional public schools. Failing charter schools should be closed more quickly. And, proposes ELC, charter schools should receive 100% of the cost per pupil allotted through NJ’s school funding formula instead of the 70%-90% they now receive. (The sending district keeps the rest.)

ELC’s proposal is more measured and balanced than the quick-and-dirty rag in the tailpipe strategy offered by Diegnan/NJSBA/SOS-NJ. But it’s worth unpacking a bit.

At the Spotlight roundtable on charter schools last week, references were made by panelists to the “mythology” that has blossomed amidst the charter school wars in NJ and elsewhere. Part of the mystery is due to lack of credibility of NJ’s Department of Education. Do charter schools really “cream off” students? Do they discriminate against kids with disabilities? Does the DOE turn a blind eye to financial indiscretions at charters yet grind its boots on the heads of innocent traditional schools? Do charter students perform better or worse than students in traditional schools? Answers to these questions should be readily available, but years of incompetence and understaffing in Trenton make one guess as good as another. Much of the charter mythology is anecdotal because data is scarce. NJ SMART, the DOE’s Sisyphean boulder of data management, is creaky as a mainframe computer.

(One note on the myth that charter schools “cream off” better-behaved and better-performing students. Last week at the NJ Spotlight roundtable, Karen Thomas, CEO of Marion P. Thomas Charter School in Newark told a sell-out crowd that one day she received a series of faxes from the traditional public school around the corner. Those faxes were applications to her school from students who were being urged out of the public into her charter. Sometimes it’s the traditional public schools that do the creaming. Happens in special ed all the time.)

ELC proposes that a new charter school’s population be reflective of the community. That's praiseworthy, and right in line, by the way, with NJEA’s reasonable position that “as a matter of principle and practice, public charter schools should strive serve student populations which reflect the student population of the host district.” Always nice to find common ground.

More controversial is ELC’s proposal that charter school law “should encourage charter schools that can help meet the needs of the state’s most vulnerable students. From the proposal:
Priorities should include multi-district charters that strive to serve a socioeconomically or racially diverse student body, charters that develop model programs for students at-risk of dropping out, charters that educate special education students in inclusive settings, and charters that pilot innovative programs for English language learners.
Oh boy. We’re devolving back to NJSBA/Diegnan/SOS-NJ. Take our tired, our poor, our kids at risk of dropping out, our students with disabilities, our kids who can’t speak English. We’ll just keep those kids to whom learning comes easily.

Here’s a slightly different proposal, one that validates the sentiments of the fear-based Diegnan bill and incorporates the best parts of ELC’s proposal:

1) Eliminate the public vote on school district budgets that come in below the 2% cap. Part of the anger incited by charter school expansion is in response to the reality that even the most fiscally-sound school boards face the wrath of tax-weary voters every April. Voters elect school board members to represent them. Let the members represent them. And don’t subject new charters to a public vote.

2) Reform the DOE (yeah, yeah, not as easy) so that the public trusts the system. The DOE’s stock is so low it’s like Enron. Comm. Cerf’s first priority must be to increase the public’s comfort level with a department that is famous for bungling paperwork, wasting money, and missing deadlines. As it stands, it's an ideal ecosystem for the growth of mythology and misconceptions.

3) Standardize oversight among our all our public schools, charter and non-charter. Mandate standardized tests all around (most charters do this already – check the DOE website for School Report Card info). Streamline the DOE monitoring rubric called QSAC and subject charter schools to the same oversight. Publish results. Transparency must be the DOE’s middle name.

4) Close dysfunctional or chronically failing charter schools, like the recent closure of Capital Preparatory Charter High School in Trenton, under investigation for financial mismanagement. But fair’s fair. Close (i.e., go to a turnaround model) financially mismanaged and/or chronically failing traditional public schools.

5) Consider a moratorium on “boutique” charter schools in high-performing school districts. It’s a waste of political capital and a distraction from the problems plaguing poorly-performing schools, charter and non-charter.

6) Expand the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program to give poor families more educational options. Consider mandating the opening of available seats and, as ELC Director David Sciarra told Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun, “break down district barriers.”

7) Listen to ELC: "Charters should receive the full 100% per pupil funding for the "base cost" set in the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), rather than the 90% they currently receive, plus any additional funding generated by the SFRA "weights" for at-risk, ELL and special education students actually served by the charter." Or at least stick to the 90%; the license to pocket 10% of the cost per pupil may pacify local districts if charter schools manage to survive the current political onslaught.

And let's remember that this groundswell of opposition to public school choice is not a New Jersey phenomenon. The Savannah Morning News reported that on Monday the Georgia Supreme Court struck down charter school laws and that this ruling "effectively abolishes Georgia’s state-chartered schools." The New York Times reports today that the UFT filed suit against New York City public schools for closing failing schools and giving charter schools empty space in traditional schools. Dennis Walcott, NY's new Chancellor remarked that "the litigation was about 'protecting jobs for adults at the expense of what is best for our children' and described it as an effort to 'keep failing schools in our midst.'”

No one said this was going to be easy, right? The indefatigable ELC's been fighting for improved educational opportunity for years, almost as long as NJ has failed to provide a thorough and efficient system of education to our neediest children. Charter schools are no magic bullet, but they are part of the landscape of a functional and effective menu of public school options.

When the Assembly Education Committee considers Assemblyman Diegnan's bill on Monday, they should remember that pacifying adults is less important than educating kids.

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