Why do charter schools in N.J. generate so much heat?

Last week I wrote a rebuttal to Dr. Diane Ravitch’s response to N.J. Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s charter school editorial. My post ignited a host of negative comments. So, why do N.J. charter schools generate so much heat?

This is a commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Last week in this space, I wrote a rebuttal to Dr. Diane Ravitch’s response to N.J. Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s charter school editorial. Dr. Ravitch, the leading conservative spokesperson in education today, contended that New Jersey is “beginning to revolt” against charters “because the state is trying to push them into suburbs that have great public schools and don’t want them.”

I tried to temper that argument, reinforce Comm. Cerf’s definition of charters as “public schools, with public school students and public school teachers, funded with public dollars,” and inject a little sanity into a debate that seems to polarize many people who otherwise share a passion for public education.

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While I received some very supportive emails, the post ignited a host of negative comments, which leads to the next question: Why do charter schools in New Jersey generate so much heat?

Remember, please, that this discussion is about New Jersey’s charter schools.

So, for example, Dr. Ravitch’s claim, on WHYY’s very own “Fresh Air” — that charter schools are “an enormous entrepreneurial activity” where “heads are paying themselves $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 a year” — is inapplicable to New Jersey’s charter school environment, where charters are non-profit. (Indeed, I don’t know if it’s applicable to any charter school environment, but the goal here is to go beyond the lack of granularity popular in diatribes of any persuasion.)

So, first, a few facts:

N.J. charter schools are, by statute and conception, public schools. They are funded by public money on a per pupil basis, just like traditional schools, although the sending districts keep a small portion. They are all non-profits.

They adhere to the same fiscal and curricular metrics as other N.J. public schools. The kids take the same tests. Staff members can unionize, although they don’t have to. Admissions policies can’t discriminate against kids new to the English language or children with disabilities. 

The charter universe in N.J. is tiny, serving only 2 percent of students, mostly poor minority kids. While there’s no current legislation that restricts new charters to needy districts, eight of the nine new charters just approved by the DOE are in Newark, Camden, Jersey City, and Willingboro.

Most children in Jersey will always attend traditional public schools. 

N.J. has two other forms of public school choice that draw from traditional district enrollments and receive funding from public school coffers, and they draw no opposition from anti-charter school advocates.

First, the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program (IPSCP) allows traditional districts to offer open seats to children from outside district boundaries. Applications from receiving districts are, like charters, approved by the DOE. Sending districts don’t get a vote on their student participation and they pay per-pupil costs and transportation (just like charters).

Admission, like charters, is through a lottery system. Currently, over 70 districts participate in this program with more joining all the time.

 Charter opponents in N.J. are silent on the IPSCP.

Second, New Jersey has a robust system of magnet schools, another form of public school choice. Sending schools pay transportation and per pupil costs. Local districts don’t get to vote on the establishment of a new magnet school.

Some N.J. magnets operate under the umbrella of vocational schools.

For example, at Bergen Academies in Hackensack, one of the best schools in the state, average SAT scores are 720 in math and 680 in verbal, and 85% of the kids take advanced placement courses. Admission is selective and requires transcripts, standardized test scores, and references from three teachers. There’s also an entrance exam. Bergen Academies doesn’t admit students with special needs or English language learners. 

In 2011, Bergen Academies’ cost per pupil was $34,227.

The superintendent (until Gov. Christie’s salary cap) made $250,845, with a deferred compensation package of $300K. Sounds a little bit like Dr. Ravitch’s edu-entrepreneurs, no? 

In N.J., charter school opponents are silent on magnet schools.

 So whither the anger?

It’s not the exercise of public school choice, because that’s available through IPSCP schools or magnets. (Wealthier Jersey families just move to a better district, a form of school choice not covered here.)

It might be local control, Jersey’s neurotic trigger, but IPSCP schools and magnets are impervious to sending-district governance. Restrictive admissions policies don’t exist in charters and do exist in magnets, but there’s that perception that charters “cream off” top students.

Is it that charter school teachers don’t have to join NJEA? Is it anti-Christie animus and, by extension, Cerf disdain? Is it the diversion of scarce local funds? Is it fear that charter school expansion will somehow divest traditional districts of success or power?

Please chime in.


Laura Waters is 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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