Newark NJ — May 17, 2011

Charter schools, along with private school vouchers, are the centerpiece of Governor Christie’s education “reform” agenda. With the Governor’s support, the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) received a record number of charter school applications this year — 58 new schools across 13 counties.

But there is growing evidence of significant problems with New Jersey’s 15-year charter experiment. Data consistently show most charter schools do not outperform host district schools, and a number of charters continually rank as underperforming schools. Many charter schools are not serving students comparable to those enrolled in district schools, including students with disabilities and English language learners (ELL). Charters are not required to disclose contributions, grants and other support from private and foundation sources, giving some select charters a distinct advantage over other charters and district schools. And, because the NJDOE performs only perfunctory evaluations, little is known about what works — and what doesn’t — in charter schools, and how successful practices might help improve district schools.

These problems came into sharp focus again with the recent announcement that another charter school — the Capital Preparatory High School in Trenton — will close due to serious fiscal irregularities and financial mismanagement. Since 1996, an estimated 31 charter schools, or nearly one-third of all NJDOE-approved charter schools, have surrendered their charters or had their charters revoked or not renewed. In addition, numerous charters are not meeting state academic benchmarks, and 14 charters are on the list of New Jersey’s persistently lowest performing schools.

Put simply, an overhaul of NJ’s charter school law is long overdue to make certain that these schools operate effectively, are fully accountable for performance, and make a solid contribution to the overall improvement of public education in their host districts — for every student, not just those attending charters.

To achieve this objective, Education Law Center is calling for the Legislature to make the following 10 improvements in NJ’s charter school law:

1) Encouraging Innovation and Supporting Challenging Students

Charter schools were intended to establish innovative programs to serve challenging student populations and needs. To renew this focus, the law should encourage charter schools that can help meet the needs of the state’s most vulnerable students. Priorities should include multi-district charters that strive to serve a socioeconomically or racially diverse student body, charters that develop model programs for students at-risk of dropping out, charters that educate special education students in inclusive settings, and charters that pilot innovative programs for English language learners.

2) Serving Comparable Student Populations

While charters are currently required to seek the admission of a cross-section of the community’s student population, they often enroll far fewer students with disabilities, English language learners, and students eligible for free lunch (very low income). This provision must be strengthened and include a requirement that charters failing to enroll students with demographics comparable to their host district(s) develop and implement a corrective action plan. This may include altering the lottery mechanism to recruit and attract underserved student populations.

3) Increasing Waiting List Transparency

Charter schools should be required to maintain and publish up-to-date waiting lists for admission. These lists should include demographic information such as student grade level, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status (free or reduced lunch), limited English proficiency, and special education status. This would ensure that waiting lists and charters attract a representative cross-section of a sending district’s student population.

4) Tracking Mid-Year Transfers

Students often leave and enter charters during the school year, and there are reports that students exit in advance of the administration of state assessments. Charters should be required to collect, maintain and report on all student transfers during the school year, including student demographic data, reasons for transfer out of the charter, and information on subsequent educational placements after leaving the school.

5) Improving Annual DOE Evaluations

While the Commissioner of Education is required to perform an annual evaluation of every charter school, these evaluations are, incredibly, not in writing nor made public. The Commissioner should be required to issue a written annual evaluation of the performance of each charter, with full public disclosure, including the school’s progress in meeting the goals and objectives in its specific charter.

6) Requiring A Comprehensive Five-Year Program Evaluation

NJ’s original charter law mandated the Commissioner to authorize an independent evaluation in 2000, but the charter program has not been evaluated since then. The Commissioner should be required to complete an independent, comprehensive evaluation every five years, with recommendations for improving program implementation.

7) Closing Persistently Underperforming Charters

Under the current law, there are no standards nor requirements for closing charter schools that continually fail to meet NCLB and state performance benchmarks. The law should set standards for shutting down failing charters. Charter revocation should also be authorized for a persistent failure to make reasonable and appropriate efforts to serve student populations comparable to the host district.

In the event that a charter is revoked, the NJDOE and local districts should be required to provide parents and guardians with information about the assignment of students to district schools, with the prompt transfer of student records to the district. An independent audit of the closing charter school should also be conducted to classify any assets remaining after all debts have been paid. These assets should then be returned to their source, with property and equipment turned over to the district.

8) Establishing Educational Collaboration in High Need Districts

Both charter and district schools, especially in high need districts, urgently require high quality technical assistance to improve instruction, collect relevant data, evaluate programs and identify effective practices. To meet this requirement, high need districts should establish an educational collaboration with charter schools in the district to support improvement of instructional programs, best practices, research, data collection and evaluation.

9) Ensuring Funding Equity and Accountability

Charters should receive the full 100% per pupil funding for the “base cost” set in the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), rather than the 90% they currently receive, plus any additional funding generated by the SFRA “weights” for at-risk, ELL and special education students actually served by the charter.

Some charters receive funds from private sources and in-kind donations, but they are not presently required to disclose such revenue. Charters should be required to complete revenue and expenditure budgets, just as districts must do, including any money or in-kind contributions received from foundations, corporations, individuals or other donors.

When a student leaves a charter school after October 15 and returns to a district school, the charter should be required to return the student’s pro-rated per pupil funding to the district. This would also apply in reverse if a district student moves to a charter school during the school year but after October 15.

10) Creating a Mechanism for Local Input on Charter Authorization

Charter schools have a significant impact on the local districts that host them, and local communities should be empowered to decide whether a charter school is in their best interests. A form of local involvement in the decision to create or expand charter schools should be included in the amended charter law. Many grassroots education advocates and members of the NJ Legislature now call for a local vote on charter schools, arguing that additional spending commitments funded from local school budgets fall within the purview of voters.

The number of NJ charter schools is increasing significantly, and a robust public debate has sprung up about their place in public education. It is incumbent on our legislators to make much needed changes to the charter law prior to the establishment of additional schools and/or the expansion of existing ones. These 10 amendments, driven by research and experience, will significantly improve New Jersey’s law.

After 15 years, New Jersey has amassed useful data and qualitative information on the impact of charter schools on the delivery of public education in the communities they serve. NJ students deserve more than ideological policy choices that ignore more than a decade and a half of actual experience. As we ask our students to do every day, we need to apply what we’ve learned to the real world. Let’s improve our charter school law so that all students in NJ public schools, however governed, get the thorough and efficient education they deserve and are entitled to receive.

Education Law Center Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Policy & Outreach Coordinator
email: skrengel@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x24

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Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x240