NJ Charter School Feast

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Amidst all the will-he-or-won’t-he Christie fog on the Jersey windshield, it’s been easy to miss this week’s stream of articles and editorials on charter schools. Let’s review:

On Monday NJ Spotlight covered the Christie Administration’s announcement that, out of sixty new charter school applications, four had been approved. No Mandarin or Hebrew-immersion models, for those of you following the inside track of oppositions to charters, which holds that in rich successful school districts charters merely drain scarce resources.

In fact, the only charters to get the green light are those slated for low-performing poor districts: Trenton, Camden, Jersey City, and Lawnside. (The last one is actually in Cherry Hill, but has sworn a blood oath to accept kids from its impoverished neighbor.) Also, two established and successful charters can expand. TEAM Academy and North Star Academy, both in Newark, will now have seats for an additional 1,000 kids.

Good news, right? Nope: the DOE’s announcement irritated both Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform (because there were too few charters approved amidst great demand) and Julia Sass Rubin of Save Our Schools –NJ (because the Senate hasn’t passed Bill A3582, which would subject all aspiring charters to a community vote). Ms. Rubin tells Spotlight that “whether its four schools or 40 schools approved, communities are still disenfranchised.”

Moving right along, on Tuesday, the Star-Ledger Editorial board praised Ed Comm. Chris Cerf for the DOE’s “more rigorous review process” in vetting charter school applications. The Board also had kind words for our best charters (like TEAM and North Star, both in Newark), and less kind words for Bill A3582, the one that SOS-NJ is lobbying for:

That growth has created a political backlash, especially in some successful suburban districts where parents argue that charters drain money from traditional schools. A bill in the Legislature would allow towns to block charter schools by referendum.

Our view is it would be a mistake that could endanger the movement. School elections have notoriously small turnouts, and that gives unions outsized influence. And why should charter schools be subject to a vote when other schools, such as magnet schools, are not? Isn’t it enough that parents want to send their children to charters?

Charter schools are public schools, funded with public money. It is true that money is diverted from traditional districts to finance them. But that’s because the money is rightly attached to the child, not to the adults running the conventional systems. If those districts don’t want charter schools in their towns, the answer is to improve their own programs — not to cut off the means of escape.

Next item: yesterday Dr. Bruce Baker, who blogs at SchoolFinance101, praised TEAM’s principal Ryan Hill but refuted the Star-Ledger’s encomium to TEAM and North Star because they take a lower percentage of kids with special needs and a smaller number of kids qualify for free lunch. For example, only 60% of TEAM’s kids qualify for free lunch while at the Maple Av. School 77% qualify for free lunch.

It’s that old conundrum: does the urgency of immediate need for poor kids to escape dreadful schools outweigh any drain on the system? Or is the system so weak that it can’t stand the pressure, and those needy kids are just collateral damage? Interesting, the “reformy” types (Dr. Baker’s moniker) seem to have more faith in the strength of the system, while those who agitate against reforms like school choice regard the system as fragile. Others argue that the insertion of a degree of competition will ultimately strengthen the system.

Also this week Gordon MacInnes has an editorial deriding “today’s faddists who push school choice and teacher accountability” and “fuss and thunder about ‘poor black and Latino kids trapped in failed public schools.’” Ah, the good old days of no TEAM Academies or North Stars, when a teacher was a teacher was a teacher. Okay. Not really fair. Mr. MacInnes believes that the cure for our urban education ills is squarely addressing the “indisputable cause of that [achievement] gap, concentrated poverty” and focusing on pre-school and early literacy.

An example of NJ’s inability to have a “robust discussion” about poverty, he says, is Reverend Reginald Jackson’s editorial, also in NJ Spotlight, which was itself a rebuttal to an earlier MacInness Spotlight opinion piece. From Rev. Jackson:

Perhaps most sinister of all is what MacInnes, and other status quo-ists, consider the cornerstone of their battle to maintain their entrenched positions of authority: poverty is destiny. This is actually the most destructive argument that can be offered against public education as an institution in our cities. If “poor kids can’t learn” given the lavish resources present in our former Abbott districts, and a teaching force that either cannot or need not be improved, why should the good taxpayers of New Jersey continue to fund this dysfunction? This revelation is truly the lynchpin of an emerging argument to topple what we today call public education in our cities, and it is offered by the very same individuals who believe they are trying to save it.

You can read Mr. MacInness’ piece that sparked Rev. Jackson’s anger here. Mostly he says that NJ public schools are great, except for those in poor urban districts, and blames NJEA leaders and state legislators for their “inexplicable silence” in the face of Gov. Christie’s smear campaign.

A few take-aways from this week’s charter school smorgasbord:

  • While I understand Jeanne Allen’s dismay at the small number of charter school approvals, the DOE acted prudently. Our attention needs to be squarely on chronically failing districts, neither diverted by gratuitous options in high-performing districts nor risking charter backlash through unproven models. More, please, of adding seats to successful schools and inviting in well-regarded and established models, like Mastery and Harlem Children’s Zone.
  • Dr. Baker notes that one possible factor in TEAM Academy’s success is that they pay significantly higher salaries to new teachers (instead of back-loaded salary schedules that award longevity). Is that a model that can be applied in some sort of pilot program?
  • Let’s not forget about our Interdistrict Public School Choice program, whereby districts with extra seats allow kids from neighboring districts to attend. For example, Sterling High School (Camden County) has 160 seats available to, say, high schoolers stuck in the morass that is Camden Central High. Camden City Public Schools pays tuition and bussing. Oh, wait: there’s no community vote, just like there’s none for county magnet schools. The community’s disenfranchised! Maybe that’s next on SOS-NJ’s agenda.

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1 Comment

  • kallikak, October 5, 2011 @ 11:07 pm Reply

    “Our attention needs to be squarely on chronically failing districts, neither diverted by gratuitous options in high-performing districts nor risking charter backlash through unproven models.”

    “Gratuitous options” indeed. So you would deny communities the right to block unneeded charters or those catering to students outside the host district?

    What about converting parochial or private schools whose per-pupil public funding reduces the amount available for the pre-existing public student body?

    Unproven models? Are you suggesting that Derrell & the Hedgies would actually endorse or promote unvalidated methodologies?

    Is Mark Zuckerberg reading this???

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