RTTT Yahrzeit and Charter School Conversions

NJ Spotlight notes the one-year anniversary of Chris Christie’s firing of then-Ed Commissioner Bret Schundler because of a (minor) screw-up in our Race To The Top application. Indeed, we lost $400 million, though not because of Wireless Generation’s failure to properly proofread a simple answer to a simple question in the back of the application for federal education reform aid. We lost Race To The Top because of a several more substantive deficits: an inadequate state data system, anemic charter school legislation, lack of school choice.(See here for recent analysis.)

Movement’s afoot, however, in NJ’s charter school legislative arena. A set of four bills (see here for recap) was entertained by the Assembly. Two passed. One allows private or parochial schools to convert to charters. Another bill changes the current system by which only the DOE can authorize new charters (one of the criticisms from reviewers of our RTTT application) to a system of multiple authorizers. The two other bills, for good reason, never made it through the Assembly.

Now a new wrinkle: the charter conversion bill (now called Senate Bill 1858) has acquired some amendments that limit participation to “high-performing non-public schools located in failing districts.” Hard to quibble with that: shouldn’t our energies be directed at kids stuck in lousy schools? It’s another amendment, however, that has incited some ire:

The application submitted to the commissioner must certify that upon conversion to charter school status the school will prohibit religious instruction, events and activities that promote religious views, and the display of religious symbols. The bill provides that the name of the proposed charter school cannot include any religious reference.

There’s the rub. The charter conversion bill was partially intended to help struggling Catholic schools stay afloat. But according to the new Senate bill, a newly-chartered Catholic school would have to give up its Catholic identity. John Mooney delves into the politics informing these changes. Most interesting is that the charter conversion bill was changed to allow political coverage for legislators who don’t want to vote for the Opportunity Scholarship Act, otherwise known as the "voucher bill." Now they can give the cold shoulder to OSA but still maintain ed reform bona fides by voting “yes” for the charter conversion bill.

But the New Jersey Catholic Conference is having none of it. Said George Corwell, the NJCC's primary lobbyist, "None of our schools would do that. Our goal if any our schools are to close is to get its students into another Catholic school, and a charter school is not a Catholic school under any circumstances."

So legislators are loathe to vote for the Opportunity Scholarship Act because vouchers are the third rail of ed reform. (Here's NJEA in a lather.) But how can one ethically relegate impoverished kids to our worst public schools when there are educationally-sound local options like Catholic schools? Simple: turn them into ex-Catholic schools and pay the freight.

Doesn't really matter anyway. Senator Ray Lesniak, sponsor of both OSA and the charter conversion bill cum amendments, says it's unlikely to pass. Too bad. It was a good bill.

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