ELC Recommends Steps to Comply with NJ Charter Law and Constitutional Mandates
Education Law Center is urging the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) to take immediate steps to reverse course from a decade of explosive and improper growth of charter school enrollment, targeted in the state’s high poverty, racially isolated school districts.
“In allowing charter schools, the Legislature wanted to encourage local stakeholders to pilot innovative practices on a school-by-school basis to improve education for all students in districts served by charter schools,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “Over the last decade, the State has facilitated the rapid expansion of charter school networks designed to compete with, and replace, district public schools altogether, in direct violation of constitutional mandates and the Legislature’s intent.”
ELC’s recommendations to address the problems in New Jersey’s charter school program are detailed in written comments submitted to the NJDOE. Governor Phil Murphy’s administration is undertaking a thorough review of implementation of the 1995 charter school law.
Data submitted by ELC shows dramatic growth in charter school enrollments under the Christie administration. By 2018-19, charter enrollment had risen to 56,767 students from 18,792 students in 2008-09, an increase of 300%. This growth is concentrated in several high-poverty, urban districts, with Newark seeing the largest increase from 4,559 students in 2008-09, to 18,546 students in 2018-19, or a 307% increase. The share of Newark students attending charter schools has grown to 36%. Other districts, such as Camden, Asbury Park and Trenton, also saw large increases in the share of students attending charter schools.
The Christie administration rewrote the rules on charter school expansion, flouting the intention of the original charter school law, by allowing charter management networks to open new schools as “satellite campuses” and by approving dramatic enrollment increases through the five-year charter renewal process.
For example, the New York-based Uncommon organization now operates a network of charter schools in Newark, consisting of six elementary schools, five middle schools and two high schools. The Christie administration also allowed the KIPP organization to open and operate four elementary schools, three middle schools and one high school in Newark.
The rush to expand charters in the Christie era was so great that the NJDOE doesn’t even know exactly how many charter schools currently operate in the state.
In approving this charter growth, the NJDOE also shirked its constitutional responsibility to assess the fiscal impacts and segregative effects of charters on the public school districts in which they are located. Under several New Jersey Supreme Court rulings, the State Education Commissioner is obligated to evaluate and determine whether a proposed charter school would: 1) exacerbate patterns of student segregation in the district where it will operate, and/or 2) cause a loss of funding that deprives essential resources to students in district-run schools.
ELC has documented the negative fiscal impacts of charter expansion on Abbott districts. For example, payments from Newark Public Schools (NPS) to Newark charter schools rose dramatically to $225 million, or 27% of the total NPS budget, in 2015-16. These increasing charter payments, combined with flat state funding, forced Newark to make drastic reductions in spending on regular classroom instruction, guidance and other support services, and special education and bilingual education in district schools.
ELC has also documented the negative impact charter expansion has had on student demographics in public school districts. In Newark, Camden, Red Bank, Hoboken and other districts, charters do not educate the same student populations as the district schools. The charter student population is less poor (fewer free-lunch-eligible students) and includes very few, if any, English language learners (ELL).
The net effect of the Christie administration’s policies toward charter expansion is that school districts, which now must educate higher concentrations of students with costlier needs, such as ELL students and students with disabilities, have fewer resources to serve these students.
ELC is urging the NJDOE to make significant changes to the Department’s implementation of the charter program to rein in unfettered charter expansion, protect impoverished communities and at-risk children, and realign New Jersey charter school policy with the express language and intent of the charter law and constitutional mandates.
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