Charter School Families Struggle As Murphy’s Education Department Ignores ‘Clear Objective Data’

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Yesterday’s New Jersey Monitor dives into the consequences of the Murphy Administration’s denial last spring of nine expansion requests from the highest-performing public charter schools in the state. The repercussions continue as low-income families cope with unexpected transfers and school leaders struggle to tease out the DOE’s logic in shutting off access to effective instruction in cities where families are desperate for quality schools.

So what really went on last spring? Why would Murphy’s Department of Education, supposedly committed to educational equity, reject a small expansion of a school like Trenton’s Achievers Early College Prep Charter School, where proficiency rates in math and reading have doubled over the last three years? Or a 300-student expansion of Newark’s North Star Academy which the Washington Post hails as a model of excellence: ”more Black students…scored proficient on the 2019 state tests in math and literacy [at North Star] than in the entire Newark school district, even though the district has three times as many Black children as the school does.”

A few facts jump out.

Dysfunction and disarray in the DOE’s Charter School Office:

Harry Lee, President of the NJ Public Charter School Association, told the Monitor no one has permanently held the role of Charter Schools Director at the DOE since 2020, which may help explain why, during Murphy’s tenure, the DOE has denied 70% of all charter expansion requests.

What happens when a state agency lacks internal cohesion, leadership, and adequate staffing, where a charter school evaluator resigns because he can’t “ethically participate in the DOE’s current charter review process”?

You end up with poor outcomes for the public.  Amy Ruck Kagan, a former head of the state Charter School Office, says Murphy’s Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, who makes the final call on these expansion denials, has ignored “important detail,” used “academic and fiscal data from three years ago,” and “demonstrated a misunderstanding of how schools enroll students.” 

The DOE’s denial letters, which are supposed to articulate why evaluators aren’t approving expansions, “don’t include detailed information about their shortcomings or explain what changes could be made to get approval for expansion,” according to charter leaders, who “say they want a more transparent process, and are urging state officials not to look at one data point when issuing a denial.”

“A lot of decisions were made with no rhyme or reason. The Department of Education should be calling balls and strikes based on clear, objective criteria, but unfortunately, that did not happen this past round,” said Lee

Low-Income Families Pay the Price

Lee explains, “This past round [of charter expansion denials] was really devastating, It does not make sense. These are the types of decisions that have had devastating impacts on students and upended the lives of many families.”

The Monitor describes those devastating impacts:

Kearny mother Ana Simonelli transferred her son Enzo to Hudson Arts and Sciences Charter School in fifth grade where he went from being “a quiet student with low grades being bullied by other kids to joining the robotics club and loving school.” Enzo finished eighth grade in June and was all set to begin high school when the DOE denied the charter’s long-planned expansion to ninth grade. There was no way Simonelli was sending Enzo to Kearny High School where nine out of ten kids fail math proficiency tests so she managed to get him into Bergen Arts and Science Charter School in Hackensack. Then she, a single mom on a tight budget, had to buy a car to get her boys to school. (Enzo’s younger brother Mateo is still at Hudson Arts and Sciences Charter School.)

Simonelli hopes the Department of Education will reconsider these denials after seeing the impact it has on families.

“It’s our option to choose where to send them. Nobody can tell us to send our kids to a big high school if we don’t feel that protection or the support from traditional schools,” she said. “It’s not about talking bad about public or private schools, it’s about where we feel safe.”

A Department of Education spokesman did not return a request for comment.

As Murphy Plots a Presidential Run, Low-Income Families Pay the Price

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