NJ’s Anti-Charter School Lobbyists: How Far Will They Go?

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The Riverbank Charter School of Excellence in Roebling, NJ  announced that it was withdrawing its proposed expansion. John Mooney at NJ Spotlight has the background and story. Podcast too.

The Burlington county charter, 142 kids in grades K-3, wanted to add a 4th and 5th grade and increase enrollment by 70 kids. But after a fiery campaign waged by one of its receiving districts, Florence Township Public Schools,  and two lobbying groups, Save Our Schools-NJ,  and Speak Up NJ, Riverbank’s board voted to withdraw its application. (Speak Up NJ is a new anti-reform group which describes itself as “dedicated to helping parents across the state defend their children’s public schools from unwanted charters.”)

Riverbank graciously withdrew its application. But the intensity of the attacks on a high-achieving charter school elucidates one of NJ’s challenges to expanding access to functional public schools for all kids and the role of these anti-charter groups.

Florence Public Schools’ push against the expansion of Riverbank was based on the financial burden of tuition payments.  The district is a small K-12 three-school district of 1,700 children. The whole district, in fact, could fit within a typical high school; efficiencies come hard and the budget is tight.  Tuition payments to Riverbank, with a per pupil cost of $9,267 (about $3K less than Florence’s) will come to $1.2 million a year next year, about the same amount as Florence’s allowable budget increase.

We  love our local schools and the presence of alternatives poses fiscal challenges to traditional districts. It’s perfectly rational for the Florence Board of Education to oppose additional budget burdens. It’s perfectly rational to wonder whether the financial hardship inflicted on the traditional district, not a great district but a good one, is balanced by enhanced opportunities for the 142 kids who get to go to Riverbank.

School choice is hard.  Establishing a robust system of school choice incites resentment and insecurity.  But it starts getting scary when this anti-choice ardor is aimed only at charters, despite the fact that NJ’s (short) menu of  choices —  magnet schools, Interdistrict Public Choice schools, and even out-of-district placements for special ed kids — creates the same fiscal burdens. What is it about charters?

Here’s a recent example of the increasingly myopic yet rabid opposition from a  Star-Ledger editorial that ran this week, a frenzied, paranoic, Diane Ravitch-inspired jeremiad. The author claims that the Christie Administration’s intentions to expand charter schools (one supported vigorously, by the way, by President Obama) is ”a carefully orchestrated plot to systematically dismantle New Jersey public education,” a  “cynical plot” that  “awakens the false hopes of the poor, who will send their children to these schools for a quality education, whereas all they’ll be getting is a bogus substitute, shoddy goods, with no state oversight or transparency, no accountability, with results no more substantial than smoke-and-mirror tricks by the circus conjuror, aka the director of each such charter.”

(On first read, I thought this piece was some sort of Onion-style parody.. But it’s not! This guy’s serious! I need to get more cynical.)

NJ’s anti-charter lobbyists are walking a fine line. On the one hand, they’ve successfully redirected the Christie Administration’s efforts at charter expansion to chronically failing districts That’s a reasonable and fair outcome.

On the other hand, they’re falling perilously close to losing  credibility by teetering on the edge  of the sort of conspiratorial fanaticism embodied by the Ledger editorial, one that logically would preclude the existence of NJ’s other forms of schools choice. Are these groups ready to take on, say, the elite Bergen County Technical Schools, which bill local districts $27K per pupil per year, a far greater burden on budgets than Riverbank? Are they ready to oppose the expansion of the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, widely supported by NJ’s legislators, that gives the power of placement to parents and families?

No, of course not. Their ire is reserved for public charter schools. And as the anti-charter nuts (see Ledger editorial) ratchet up their inflammatory rhetoric, groups like Save Our Schools-NJ are going to have to figure out exactly what and whom they stand for.

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  • Rita McClellan, February 17, 2013 @ 2:07 am Reply

    As usual Ms. Walters, you get it wrong. The real blame for the issues with Riverbank lie with Commissioner Cerf and the Department of Education who consistently pit local communities against charters especially now when school budgets are very tight and school funding is consistently under attack by this administration. Florence had no choice but to fight this expansion because of the cuts made to their budget (which included cuts to teaching staff and the loss of programs and school sports) when the charter opened. If this expansion had occurred, the additional cuts would have further devastated the Florence public schools. The biggest losers would have been the 1700 public school students; all for approximately 141 Riverbank students. This type of damage is not acceptable under any circumstances. Until New Jersey gives local communities a say throughout the whole charter process, we will continue to see these battles occur.

    One additional FYI for you. Riverbank pulled their charter expansion application a few hours after an Aide to Senator Diane Allen showed up at Riverbank’s Board of Trustee meeting last Tuesday. The aide handed out a letter to the board members and those attending the meeting, which stated that Senator Allen did not support Riverbank’s expansion and expressed concern about the damage that the expansion was doing to the community as a whole.

  • Julia, February 17, 2013 @ 2:30 am Reply

    Ms Waters,

    Although there are many inaccuracies in what you wrote, I will correct only one for now.

    Save Our Schools NJ did not take an official position on the Riverbank charter school expansion as we generally do not take organizational positions on individual charter schools.

    We are a state-level, grass roots organization, focused on ensuring that every child in NJ has access to a high quality public education. Our policy objectives include reforming our State's broken charter school law to address the dramatic segregation between charter and traditional public schools.

    We also are fighting to give local communities the ability to decide if a charter school can open or expand or close in their midst, rather than having all of those decisions forced upon them by the Commissioner of Education, a politically appointed, state-level official, which is how it currently works.

    Save Our Schools NJ has 10,500 members across the state and they are free to support or oppose whatever they want, including individual charter schools. That does not make their individual positions official Save Our Schools NJ positions.

  • darciecima, February 17, 2013 @ 2:45 am Reply

    While we are all entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own facts.

    As a board of ed member you know that a district's per pupil funding amounts represent K-12 students, but K-5 students are far less expensive to educate than 9-12 students. Here is a link on the NJDOE website with the K-5 per pupil funding amount for Florence. It's $10,544.


    The district is paying the charter $10,283 for K-3 students.


    Can you provide links to where you got your numbers that add up to a $3,000 differential? If not, it seems you should correct your post with the proper numbers.

    The numbers I have provided for your reference actually indicate that Riverbank is receiving far more than their allotted 90% per pupil funding. 98% to be exact.

    I look forward to your reply.

  • kallikak, February 17, 2013 @ 3:54 pm Reply

    Take a breath, Laura. You're sounding a tad hyperbolic.

    Is there no room in the discussion for people* who think “Father (aka: Cerf, Broad, Gates, Rhee, Anderson, etc.) Doesn't Always Know Best”?

    *Right on, Julia and Darcie.

  • NJ Left Behind, February 19, 2013 @ 4:32 pm Reply

    Rita, I certainly understand the concerns of the Florence school board. Expanding school choice while maintaining the fiscal health of traditional districts — which will always educate most students — is a difficult balancing act.

    Thanks for the clarification, Julia.

    Darcie, I got my numbers from the DOE database.You're right — I was using the cost per pupil K-12, and the discrepancy is not as great. But that wasn't the point: obviously, both Florence and Riverbank use education money efficiently. In this post I was more interested in divining the strategy for groups like yours: how do you differentiate between some forms of school choice (Interdistrict, magnet) that pose at at least the same fiscal challenges as charters? Why are charters evil but not other forms of schools choice?

  • darciecima, February 19, 2013 @ 7:13 pm Reply

    Thanks for responding Laura and acknowledging that I was correct. Will you be changing your post accordingly?

    Charters, magnets and IDPSC are not really comparable in my opinion. The state does not decide where a magnet school will go, or which districts will participate in the IDPSC – those decisions are made at the district level, or perhaps at the county level for a magnate.

    As I understand it, magnets are part of a district or county system. But as you know, charters are independent of the local districts from which they take funds, and have their own boards. While they are accountable to the state, we have seen time and time again that state oversight of charters is often abysmal.

    Magnate schools are very clearly for higher achieving students; no one pretends they serve all students. Charters on the other hand act as if they serve all students, but demographic comparisons more often than not show they don't serve the same percentages of ELL, F/RL students, or students with special needs. This does not stop the state from comparing charter results to those of their local district, often providing the state the false justification to open more charters or close traditional public schools. (For example, see the recent incredibly skewed NJ charter school study by CREDO)

    To top it all off, charters that DO go out of their way to serve dropouts and at risk students, like Emily Fischer, are closed for poor performance compared to the local district, even when the closure is against the wishes of the district and charter families. Have you seen the high performance of a magnet school used as the rationale to close a public school? No, you haven't, because everyone understands that they serve a different population which is why their students' scores are higher.

    Magnates and IDPSC schools follow the same regulations as public schools, while charters are exempt from most state regulations. A system where there is one set of rules for TPS and another for charters sets up unhealthy competition. If deregulation is good for charters, it should be good for all public schools.

    In addition, both magnates and the IDPSC keep tax dollars in the public system, unlike many charters, which funnel them right into the hands of for-profit companies. As part of the traditional public school system magnates and IDPSC schools rely on the same unionized workforce as the rest of the TPS system, unlike many charters which are not unionized, have high teacher turnover rates, and make their profits off the backs of a less experienced, lower paid workforce.

    In addition, I have yet to hear about a suburban district like Florence Township losing over $1M to the IDPSC program or a magnate school. Florence Township would have lost close to 10% of their budget had the expansion been approved. Have you seen a magnate school or the IDPSC program have this kind of effect on a single small district like Florence? I sure haven't.

    Laura, I have broached this with you before. You are incredibly lucky that a charter application never landed on the desk of your superintendent in Lawrence. What would you have done as the board president if confronted with a $1M or $2M bill for a charter? What would you have done if someone from outside of your district proposed a charter in Lawrence, and you saw the state was likely to approve it against the wishes of the majority of your residents? You have never answered these questions for me and I have posed them multiple times.

    Lucky for you, it is highly unlikely you will be faced with this conundrum in the near future. Thanks to the work of advocates like me across the state, the Christie administration has focused their charter program in low-income urban districts to avoid the inevitable bad press that comes with suburban charter school battles. I still contend, if you had ever been in my shoes, you would be singing a very different tune.

  • NJ Left Behind, February 19, 2013 @ 8:47 pm Reply

    Hi, Darcie. Thanks for all your thoughtful remarks. You might be interested in this blog post, http://njleftbehind.blogspot.com/2011/07/searching-for-consistency-in-charter.html, where I look at the fiscal burden of magnet schools. Having said that, I think NJ’s magnet schools are terrific – it would be great if every county was able to offer the same options as (in this case) Bergen County does.
    I think that you overstate the difference in state oversight between traditional public schools and public charters. Like all public schools in NJ, charter school students take the same standardized tests, adhere to the same curricula, and undergo accountability assessments. Of course, they’re ineligible for facilities funding and often have lower costs per pupil available.
    I don’t know anyone who wants to close functional schools, charter, traditional, or otherwise.
    A few corrections: the State approves all Interdistrict Public School Choice schools. Charters are not “exempt from state regulations,” except those regarding teacher tenure. There may be charter schools in parts of the country that “funnel money” to for-profit companies, but I don’t know of any in NJ. Can you be specific? Then you write this:
    “As part of the traditional public school system magnates and IDPSC schools rely on the same unionized workforce as the rest of the TPS system, unlike many charters which are not unionized, have high teacher turnover rates, and make their profits off the backs of a less experienced, lower paid workforce.”
    Have you compared teacher mobility rates of charters and non-charters? Have you compared salaries of teachers – all highly-qualified, by the way – in charters and non-charters? I think you’d be surprised.
    Finally, my blog has nothing to do with my school board responsibilities. Those are two very different roles. I don’t discuss my district on my blog.

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  • darciecima, February 20, 2013 @ 3:16 am Reply

    The blog post you referenced says “Hackensack City Public Schools budget lists $7,652,944 in annual tuition payments, though not all of that is Bergen Academies.” How does this demonstrate anything at all? So how much of it IS Bergen Academies? What percentage of the Hackensack budget is it? Without clear information, your blog post sheds no additional light on the subject.

    I just did a bit of research however and found a couple interesting facts. Did you know that Bergen Academies accepts students from the 70 districts in Bergen County and that there is a limit on the number of students it can take from any one district? From the Bergen website:

    “There is a limit on the number of students we can accept from a high school district. That number is based on the enrollment of the local high school.”

    Huh, sounds like an acknowledgement that to pull too many kid from any one district may be burdensome, so there is a weighted limit per district. To my knowledge there is not such formula for charters in NJ. In fact, folks like NJDOE alum Andy Smarick are calling for full district takeovers!

    I disagree that the “accountability assessments” charters and districts are subjected to are comparable. The Performance Framework for charters is not anywhere near as foreboding as QSAC or the RACs.

    Commissioner Cerf's mantra about charters is that they “are granted autonomy in exchange for accountability.” Do you disagree with the Commissioner that charters have greater autonomy than public schools?

  • darciecima, February 20, 2013 @ 3:17 am Reply

    Now on to your “corrections.” I am well aware that the state approves districts for the IDPSC program. While I see where you may have been confused by my statement that “the state does not decide where a magnet school will go, or which districts will participate in the IDPSC – those decisions are made at the district level,” what I was referring to was that the DISTRICT decides whether or not to apply for the program. The state does not unilaterally decide a district must become an IDPSC district – the district applies. This is a significant contrast to charters which are often approved AGAINST the wishes of the host district(s).

    And yes, I can be specific about for-profits. Newark Prep, which opened this year, is run by K-12 Inc. Can you get much more for-profit than a company whose CEP makes $5M a year? K-12 has two more charters in the pipeline for next year, Spirit Prep and NJ Virtual Academy Charter School, despite ABYSMAL results and malfeasance in other states.

    Other CMO's like Touchstone Education which opened Merit Prep in Newark and Ascend which was just approved for a charter in Paterson, are for-profits masquerading as non-profits to take advantage of New Markets tax credits and other perks only provided if a CMO has a non-profit status. Here's one of my posts which may shine a bit more light on this for you:


    In the post after this one in my Paterson series you will see that one of the charters run by this same applicant had a 45% teacher attrition rate. I'd say that's higher than most TPS. And in an analysis I did of LEAP in Camden I showed that their teachers are paid less and are less experienced than their TPS counterparts in Camden and the rest of the state as well. So yes, I have some basis for my comments, but no, I am not a researcher and have not done any kind of extended analysis.


    And by the way, check out what “highly qualified” teachers in PA are encouraged to do by K12. This is from our friends at NewsWorks. A real eye opener, and one of just many reasons why advocates like me will continue to fight the charter agenda of the current administration.


    I appreciate your need to keep your blog separate from your board position.

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