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.

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