Monday, June 27, 2011

Grading NJ's Charter School Bills

A package of four bills, NJ Spotlight reports, is making its way through the Assembly this week, all relating to charter schools. As is often the case, it’s a challenge to separate the politics from the educational value. Let's give it a try.

The first one, A2806, sets forth the conditions under which non-public schools can convert to charter schools: no religious instruction or activities, no religious references in the school name. Additionally, more than half the staff and more than half the parents have to sign a petition in support of the conversion. It’s a solid bill.

The second bill, 3083, takes NJ towards a more functional charter school environment by moving to multiple authorizers. Right now the only entity that can approve a new charter is the DOE. This bill allow the State Board of Education to approve “up to three four-year public institutions of higher education as charter school authorizers.”

Again, a step in the right direction. The Center For Education Reform compares charter laws across the state; one of the marks of strength is multiple authorizers, including universities. NJ’s historic reliance on the DOE as the only authorizer has been criticized by entities as diverse as The Fordham Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education (in our Race to the Top application). Two for two.

The third bill, 3852, however, diverges from the educational soundness of the first two and gets lost in political weeds. It begins by restating the language on charter conversion from Bill 2806 (not sure why) but then but then veers off into policy supported by a host of lobbying organizations, including SOS- New Jersey and the Education Law Center:
The commissioner shall not approve an application for the establishment of a charter school unless the designation of a school district as the charter school district of residence or inclusion of the district in the charter school region of residence has been approved by the voters of the district at the annual school election in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type II district, or the board of school estimate in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type I district or a Type II district with a board of school estimate. In the event that a subset of school districts included in the region of residence of a proposed charter school does not approve of the inclusion, the charter school applicant may submit a revised application to the commissioner that does not include the school districts in which the inclusion was not approved.
Whew. Who writes these things? (And I've removed the legislative apparatus to increase fluidity.) Short version: no charters can be authorized without voter or representative (school board) approval.

If the only problem with this bill was its readability, we'd move right on and call it three for three. But think about this proposal: that applications for new charter schools must be approved by voters in the school district or, if the district doesn’t have elections, by the school board.

Um, okay. But why are we suddenly talking about community approval for new charters? Why shouldn’t voters get to vote on awarding a contract to a new superintendent? Or the purchase and implementation of a new math program? Or the local bargaining unit’s pay increase? True, voters in most districts already vote on annual school budgets, but there’s a bill (backed by NJEA and NJ School Boards Assn.) currently working its way through the Statehouse that would eliminate that vote if the district stays below the 2% cap.

Bill 3852 is inconsistent with current practice. That’s because it’s driven by politics, not educational priorities. In the white paper, “ A Sum Greater Than Its Parts: What States Can Teach Each Other About Charter Schooling,” Sara Mead and Andy Rotherham note that
Local school boards, which are the majority of authorizers nationwide, are often hostile to charter schools, which compete with them for students, funds, and prestige. As a result, state charter laws that allow only local school boards to authorize charters can result in very few charter schools in that state.
Now, it’s true that South Brunswick and Princeton, high-performing school districts, may not need a Mandarin immersion charter school in their midst. (This proposed charter has generated so much heat that a google search turns up 2,130,000 results.) In fact, 3852 is informed by this sort of scenario: a highly-specialized school that drains much needed funding from a state-aid-starved suburban district. So why not propose a bill that focuses our charter expansion in districts with poorly-performing schools? Why cut off charter school growth throughout the whole state? That's politics for you.

The last bill in the package, 3356, has some worthwhile elements – implementation of meaningful monitoring systems for charters – but is misguided, not to mention riddled with errors. Example:
"In order to enroll in a charter school, the student must first be registered in the school district in which the student resides." Glad we cleared that up.

The bill goes on to propose that every single student in the districts covered by the charter be admitted into a lottery, regardless of whether the parent has expressed interest. Why such a cumbersome proposal? Because the bill is driven by fear -- that charters discriminate against poor kids and special needs, that charters "cream off" the top performers.

A bill driven by fear is not a good bill.

We'll grade Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr., Chair of the Education Committee, two for four. Pass the first two. Send back the last two for a little more editing and a lot more analysis.

10 comments:

Trish said...

"Why shouldn’t voters get to vote on awarding a contract to a new superintendent? Or the purchase and implementation of a new math program? Or the local bargaining unit’s pay increase?"

BECAUSE THEY ELECT THE SCHOOL BOARD TO DO EXACTLY THOSE THINGS ON THEIR BEHALF!

You ARE a school board member. YOU KNOW THIS. I am stunned that you would take such a nonsensical stance to justify your belief that communities should have no say in the placement of a charter school.

Did you really think your readers are that stupid not to notice? Why not say it straight out? "I am against this bill because poor communities don't know what's best for them."

Disgusting. You should be ashamed!

NJ Left Behind said...

Trish, please don't put words in my mouth. The bill you refer to, 3852, was designed to keep charters out of wealthy districts. It has nothing to do with poor communities.

And if you trust school boards to award contracts, etc., why not trust them with charters? Yet Bill 3852 forces the vast majority of districts in NJ, which are Type II, to have public votes. Thus, aspiring charter schools must use scant resources to mount a marketing campaign. Not the best use of potential education dollars and not good for kids, rich or poor.

Trish said...

Then fine, allow all school boards to make the decision. Simplify the bill. Now how do you feel about it?

Because in your last post about this, you were complaining about the voter turnout in Camden. Your argument absolutely drips with superiority... as if you cannot trust people in urban areas, or their representatives, to make their own decisions about charter schools

darcie said...

In your opinion, is ANY charter a good idea in an urban district? Should New Brunswick not have a say in whether they want a Hebrew Language Charter High School? Based on the current political climate, and attitudes like yours, all a "boutique" charter has to do is latch on to an urban district to increase the chance of approval. You continue to state that this piece of legislation is directed at the suburban districts, but that is just not so. New Brunswick should have just as much of a say in what charters they do and don't want as any suburban community. Much easier for the people of New Brunswick to make their opinions heard to their local school board than to Trenton.

And really, why vote on a charter and not on a new superintendent or math program? Because those won't drain MILLIONS of dollars out of a school system!

Finally, your line about the scant resources available to charter schools is unbelievable! As if charters are the David to the public school's Goliath. Tikun Olam is receiving financial assistance from the Hebrew Charter School Center, a national organization funded but the Areivim Philanthropic Group which is funded by demi-billionaire hedge fund operator Michael Steinhardt (that's Forbes' description of him, not mine). Hatikvah in East Brunswick is backed by the same organization.

Volunteers in East Brunswick, Highland Park, Edison and New Brunswick have given countless hours to try to defend our communities against this threat, and we have no financial backing from any wall street entity.

In your blind quest for charter expansion in urban districts can you truly not see that ALL communities in New Jersey need to have a say in this process? Can you not see the big money players that are involved? Can you not see that the fast, free and easy Christie/Cerf path to charters, including your apparent view that any charter is a good charter in an urban setting, is allowing too many schools to open before there has been proper dialogue with the communities involved?

kallikak said...

"It (A3852) begins by restating the language on charter conversion from Bill 2806 (not sure why) but then but then veers off into policy supported by a host of lobbying organizations..."

Am I to believe your agenda isn't "supported by a host of lobbying organizations" whose sponsors' major accomplishment is bringing the world economic system to the brink of collapse?

Puhleeeze.

P.S. Your analysis of the A2806 conversion bill is naive: what's to stop me from morphing Tikkun Olam into the World Repair Academy, stripping the curriculum to its secular academic essentials and running any religious instruction/activities outside school hours under the guise of "community (free) rentals"???

NJ Left Behind said...

If the bill was amended to let school boards make the decision then, yes, Trish, I would support it. The fact that we now have multiple authorizers makes it work.

If you want to read more about this issue, here's a link to a Spotlight column I wrote: http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/10/1024/1915/

Darcie, I only support quality charter schools. No doubt there are hedge fund managers eager to make a buck by exploiting educational needs; unfortunately we can say the same thing about traditional public schools. (Heard of Superintendent Ritacco in Toms River?)

Kalliak, thanks for thinking I represent some well-funded lobbying group, but I'm afraid it's just me. As far as your fears about "morphing" charters, the accountability mechanisms like QSAC should prevent that.

darcie said...

And let's look at your analysis on 3356:

"The last bill in the package, 3356, has some worthwhile elements – implementation of meaningful monitoring systems for charters – but is misguided, not to mention riddled with errors. Example:
"In order to enroll in a charter school, the student must first be registered in the school district in which the student resides." Glad we cleared that up."

How is this an error? The way I read it, it is clarifying two issues. First, that the children that are enrolled in the PUBLIC schools are the intended audience for charter school admission, not children enrolled in PRIVATE schools. Also, this clarifies that if the district of residence does not enroll enough children from the district they are approved for, the charter will then hold a lottery that includes ALL of the children enrolled in the PUBLIC schools in the district to fill the remaining spots. This would have stopped Hatikvah from pulling kids from Highland Park when their initial charter was NOT approved for this district.

Your flippant, uneven analysis of these four pieces of legislation is troubling. You seem less concerned with facts and truth than with using your blog for broadcasting misguided, distorted sound bites. I thought you and I could have a thoughtful discussion of issues surrounding charter reform, but clearly that is not of interest to you.

darcie said...

Now you claim to only support quality charter schools? How do you determine quality? What are your criteria?

And a corrupt superintendent is your response to a hedge fund billionaire who intends to use the broken charter school laws to open 20 Hebrew Language charter schools by the year 2015? What do the two have to do with each other? Ritacco was corrupt and breaking the law, and Steinhardt is using the lack of legislation to his advantage to advance his agenda. You're comparing apples to oranges.

Trish said...

Let me see if I follow you. In your original post, you didn't like the bill because it treated poor districts exactly the same as every other district and allowed the community to vote.

You were corrected, and now you're against the bill because it treats poor districts DIFFERENTLY from every other district.

You're just against letting the "hoi polloi" cast a vote, because you know that people in general are wary of charters,worried about where the dollars are going in education, and rightfully so.

Please correct me if I'm wrong... but that's the way your posts and comments read.

kallikak said...

Three points:

(1) The name is KalliKak.

(2) I never said you represented a well-funded lobbying group. In the vernacular of the Fifties, you are a fellow-traveler with a bunch of public-spirited---if self-serving---hedge-fund dead-enders.

(3) QSAC is being dismantled as we speak. I doubt if it will ultimately protect anyone from anything.

Give my regards to Camden.