Commentary: NJ’s Dept of Ed is becoming a bottleneck for charter schools’ potential

Last week, the Paterson Charter School of Science and Technology held its annual enrollment lottery. There were 1,437 applicants for 99 openings, and so each student had less than a 10 percent chance of selection. Edwin Rodriguez, whose seven-year-old daughter, Natalie, and five-year-old son, Juelz, attend School 6, one of the worst-performing schools in the state, was one of the unlucky parents. He told The Record, “our name is on the waiting list but there are hundreds of names on the waiting list.”

This week the New Jersey Department of Education announced that, after a careful review of its most recent pool of charter applicants, it would authorize the opening of just one new charter school.  As such, the D.O.E., as well as the Christie Administration, demonstrates an overabundance of caution that ignores the plight of children like Natalie and Juelz Rodriguez.

But let’s not be too harsh. The politics of charter school authorization in New Jersey is a contact sport. Some suburban voters hate these independent public schools because they envision them siphoning cash from depleted district budgets like petty criminals huddled over the gas tank of an SUV.  NJEA leaders and other anti-choice lobbyists describe the growth of charters in urban districts like Paterson (although in this case they were referring to Camden) as an “out-of-control corporate takeover.” N.J.’s 20 year-old charter school law is flawed and obsolete, but the D.O.E. may feel threatened by some proposed revisions skulking around the Statehouse that would further curtail charter expansion. Or maybe this was just a particularly weak pool of contenders.

Whatever the reason, N.J.’s dearth of new approvals of charter schools is alarming, especially since it’s looking less like an anomaly and more like a trend.  In 2011 the Christie Administration approved 27 charter school applications. In 2012 it approved eight, the same number that Gov. Jon Corzine’s Administration approved in his last year of office.  In 2013 it approved three. In 2014 it approved five. This year so far: one, Hudson Arts and Science Charter School, which will admit students who reside in Jersey City and Kearny.

Again, let’s be fair. The D.O.E. is indeed hobbled by our state legislators’ inability to coalesce around educationally-sound revisions to charter school law. Just this week the Center for Education Reform (CER) issued its 2015 state-by-state charter school law rankings. New Jersey ranked 29th among the 42 states that have charter school laws.  (For more rankings, look at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which ranks N.J. 34th.)

There are two primary causes for our low outcome in these rankings. One is our charter school funding apparatus, which requires districts to directly pay tuition to charter schools of up to 90 percent of the “thorough and efficient funding” designated by law. CER notes, “the money charter schools receive is often much less than this because they don’t receive adjustment aid given to districts under the School Funding Reform Act. Districts can charge up to ten percent for administrative fees.” Also, charter schools receive no facilities aid.

But the biggest flaw to our charter school law is our adherence to a single-authorizer model — only the Commissioner of Education can approve charter school applications — in contrast to best practices that include additional authorizers like universities, commissions, and local school boards. From CER’s brief on N.J.:

“New Jersey’s charter school dilemma is largely due to the fact that only the state can approve charter school applications. While New Jersey initially approved many charter schools, many of these schools never opened because of district opposition, and the state chose not to step in to advocate for the schools it had authorized.”

The D.O.E. knows this. Legislators know this. Educators know this. And yet here we are.Meanwhile, Natalie and Juelz Rodriguez will return to School 6 in Paterson, one of N.J.’s “priority schools.” Maybe next year the Rodriguez family will get lucky.

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Laura Waters is vice president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

 

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