Do charter schools bring the right reform to New Jersey education?

    A conflict of views between N.J. education commissioner Chris Cerf and education policy analyst Diane Ravitchreveals distinct visions of charter schools. Which do you favor?

    Last month, a NewsWorks New Jersey post from public education blogger Laura Waters raised the ire of the daughter of the late Albert Shanker, the fiery education reformer and teachers union president. Waters thinks Shanker, whom she praised repeatedly in her piece, would support today’s charter school movement.

    Not so, replied Jennie Shanker, a local artist and the union leader’s daughter, who wrote in a comment on Waters’ blog post:

    As his daughter, I treasure the testimony of individuals who knew my father and his work. Lately, it has been, frankly, dreadful to find his name associated with school “reform” that undermines public education. […]

    I can tell you, absolutely and unequivocally, if my father was with us today he would be fighting side by side with Diane Ravitch to preserve and improve public education. The Washington Post re-published an excellent post from Ravitch’s blog this week which very clearly articulates the differences between his vision of charter reform and the for-profit version championed by Chris Cerf and others in New Jersey. […]

    Your appreciation for my father’s work and vision was lovely to read. But your stance on this issue is diametrically opposed to his values and intent, and you are dead wrong to shame Diane Ravitch for her position. Indeed, if you consider your thinking to be in line with my father’s, I recommend that you champion her work, as my family does. If anyone can speak for my father in this day and age, the person who should be most trusted is Dr. Ravitch.

    […] From what is in evidence in this article, despite your love for the man, you are in no position to speak for him.

    The exchange echoed a recent conflict of views between two big names in education reform.

    N.J. education commissioner Chris Cerf wrote an op-ed for NJ Spotlight defending charter schools, pointing out that the legendary Shanker was an early proponent of them.

    Then Diane Ravitch, the famous education policy analyst whom Jennie Shanker cited in her comments, wrote a rebuttal, describing how Shanker’s idea of a charter school differed from what Cerf advocates. 

    Enter Waters, president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County, who responded with a blog post defending Cerf

    Cerf has this to say about charters, or at least charters done the way he seeks for the Garden State:

    Adding charters to the mix gives parents more choice.
    Charters are not an effort to privatize public education.
    While parents don’t vote to open charter schools, they vote to keep them open or not by either sending their children there or not.
    While districts may lose money when students transfer to charter schools, it doesn’t matter because costs go down when students leave, and districts would lose money anyway if parents moved to a new district to escape a bad public school.

    No, Ravitch replies, it does matter when districts lose money to charters. District budgets are not expanding, and fixed costs like lights and heating and salaries do not go down when children leave the school. Further, she says, New Jersey schools rank among the highest performing in the nation.  Why endanger that by letting “private entrepreneurs” siphon off tax dollars to run charter schools. 

    If Cerf really wants to align with Shanker’s charter vision, Ravitch says, these criteria should be met:

    All new charters should be endorsed by the local school district and the union.
    For-profit management should be barred.
    Charters should enroll only the lowest-performing students.
    They should share best practices with the public schools that are sponsoring them.
    The state should authorize only stand-alone charters, no chains.

    In Waters’ post, she insists that Ravitch’s characterization of charter school managers as profiteers is untrue, that in New Jersey charters are non-profits, and that they expand school choice for poor urban students.

    But another blogger, Jersey Jazzman, counters Waters by suggesting that there is in fact a way that charters can be used as a vehicle for profit. He says on his blog that, according to N.J. statute, “a private entity can establish a charter, and that entity can’t turn a profit. But there is nothing stopping that entity from subcontracting with a for-profit firm.”

    This topic often raises emotions and inflames rhetoric, but let’s keep focus on the issue. What approach do you favor with charter schools? Should they be abandoned or encouraged? If you see problems, do they reside in the very concept of charters, or is it just that they sometimes are being managed and funded incorrectly?

    Albert Shanker railed against mediocrity and incompetence in the school system. What is the best way to drive those out and give all students a platform for success?

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