Last January, the NJ Department of Education approved a record 27 new charter schools, many to be operated by national, out-of-state charter management organizations, such as KIPP and Mastery Schools. The NJDOE signaled that New Jersey is now “open for business,” carrying out Governor Chris Christie’s call for expanding charters statewide.
So it came as a big surprise on September 29 when Acting Commissioner Christopher Cerf announced the approval of only four new charters out of 60 in the latest round of charter applications. Mr. Cerf explained the steep drop off as the result of a more rigorous review process, stating that the NJDOE has now shifted priorities in the charter program from “quantity to quality.”
Many others, however, see the NJDOE’s decision to cut back on the number of new charters as purely political, designed to quell support for pending legislation that would update NJ’s 15-year-old charter school law. Two widely supported bills – both have passed the State Assembly and are pending in the Senate – would strengthen charter accountability and transparency and require local approval before opening a new charter.
So who’s right here, Mr. Cerf or advocates for charter reform and accountability?
Answer: There’s no way to know.
That’s because the NJDOE works hard to keep the public in the dark about the charter application and review process:
- NJDOE uses individuals from outside the Department, some of whom publicly support, work or have worked for charter schools, to conduct the initial review of new charter applications. However, NJDOE has staunchly resisted releasing the names and qualifications of these “outside reviewers” to the public, prompting two lawsuits, one by the ACLU-NJ on behalf of Education Law Center, and the other by NJ State Senator Nia Gill.
- NJDOE does not make public the results of its reviews of new charter applications, including the reasons why an application was approved or rejected, even though it does provide this information to charter applicants so they are better prepared if they apply in a future round. NJDOE has gone to great lengths to keep this information away from the public by denying requests made under the NJ Open Public Records law.
- NJDOE does not reveal whether the applicant for a new charter will actually manage the school if the application is approved, or instead will hire one of the national charter management groups after obtaining state approval. This is critical information because NJ’s charter school law requires charter applicants to be located in New Jersey and connected with a New Jersey school district, whether the applicant is a public school parent, teacher, institution of higher education or a non-profit entity. The public has no way of knowing if the locally-based applicant intends to run the school or is merely serving as a “front” for an out-of-state management organization.
It may be that advocates for charter reform are correct: Mr. Cerf kept the number of new charters to a bare minimum in order to make the case in this election season that legislation to strengthen transparency, accountability and equity in NJ’s charter program is not necessary because the NJDOE will “police” itself. And perhaps Governor Christie wanted to keep voters – the vast majority of whom support a local vote on charters – from flatly rejecting his plan to spread charters to towns throughout the state.
But none of this alters the central fact: New Jersey urgently needs to overhaul its charter law to achieve the transparency and accountability that parents, students and taxpayers are now demanding. And if Mr. Cerf is serious about charter accountability, he should start with his own Department. Approval of a charter school application means scarce public dollars will be spent to establish a new school that is required to deliver a high quality education, but is answerable only to the State, not to local taxpayers, school boards and parents. And that is precisely why the public has a right to know who the State is bringing in to decide which schools get the green light and why.
Policy and Outreach Coordinator
973-624-1815, x 24
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications