The New Jersey Department of Education surprised many this fall when state administrators approved only four new charter schools out of an applicant pool of 55. In a different round of applications just nine months earlier, the Office of Charter Schools had trumpeted its decision to grant 23 charters—or about half of applicants—as part of Gov. Chris Christie’s pro-charter education reform agenda.
Of the four charters most recently approved, three will be located in cities, a victory for many suburban towns that vigorously fought proposals to open charters in their school districts.
Some experts are suggesting that New Jersey has made a conscious decision to slow charter growth, reflecting a national trend to focus on quality over quantity. The move could also be considered a peace offering to suburban voters, who are unhappy with the proliferation of charters in the state. Still others are describing the decrease in the number of new charters as political sleight of hand, designed to distract from and ultimately stop legislation that would significantly overhaul New Jersey’s charter school law, by mandating financial transparency and requiring a local vote for charter approval.
“We don’t quite know what limits we’re hitting, but somehow we may be reaching the dollars required and collective enthusiasm necessary to open up charter schools,” said Bruce Fuller, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley who studies charter schools.
In the past decade, about 400 new charters have opened nationally every year, even as charter critics have pointed to research showing that the majority don’t do significantly better than traditional public schools. In response, charter advocates have stepped up their calls for greater charter-school accountability, supporting laws and practices that make it easier to shut down low-performing charters and make it tougher to start a charter in the first place.
Some states, like Minnesota and Ohio, have hit the brakes on charter-school expansion to ensure quality among those that do open. Now, New Jersey may be joining them.
Charters have been a key focus of Gov. Christie’s education agenda since his election, but both he and acting state education commissioner Chris Cerf tempered their enthusiasm for charters over the summer. In speeches and press conferences, they said that charters may not have a place in districts that beat statewide averages on standardized tests. Christie has said, for instance, that if a charter were to open in a suburb, “there should be a need for that school and a demand for that school.”
Still, Todd Ziebarth, vice president of state advocacy and support at the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, argues that while charter-school authorizers in some states have become more discerning and slowed expansion, there are still new areas in which the charter movement can grow. “The charter phenomenon is spreading to other states,” he said. “Within states, it’s spreading to different” communities.
He acknowledged that New Jersey seems to be slowing down charter growth, however. “It seems like the state has raised the bar on what they want to see in the quality of the application,” Ziebarth said. “It’s not surprising to see a low percentage this time around. We’ll see if it adjusts.”
This fall’s charter approval process was the toughest yet after the Office of Charter Schools aligned its standards with the “national best practices” recommended by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. They include having a well-rounded board of trustees and experienced school operators.
Some of the new requirements were not included on New Jersey’s charter application, said Jutta Gassner-Snyder, whose application to open a Mandarin-immersion elementary school, Hua Mei Charter School, in Maplewood was turned down.
Gassner-Snyder was among the many would-be charter operators who spent the summer battling public school districts. In New Jersey, the opposition to charters has been strongest in the suburbs, where residents are worried about competition for state funding between traditional public schools and charters.
The state’s schools receive the bulk of their funding based on a per-pupil allotment. When a student attends a charter school, the charter gets 90 percent of that student’s funding allotment, while the district keeps the remaining 10 percent.
Nationally, as school budgets continue to be cut, there’s a possibility that both Republican and Democratic governors will hedge their support of charter schools, especially if suburban voters see them as a growing threat, suggested Fuller.
“The White House has been romantically taken by the potential of charter schools,” he said, referring to an increase in federal funding under the Obama administration as well as incentives in grant competitions for states to lift charter caps. “But the fact that a state, even with a Republican governor, would be so cautious about expanding charter schools probably spells political trouble for the Obama initiative.”
David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a Newark-based law firm focused on public education, suggested that the state education department may have rejected most of the charter applicants not out of quality concerns or in reaction to parent protests, but to slow down or derail legislation introduced earlier in the year that would strengthen the state’s charter law. This summer, the State Assembly passed bills to require local approval of charter schools and to demand more financial and educational transparency from charter schools. The bills are now before the State Senate.
It “raises a lot of red flags of what’s really going on behind closed doors at the [New Jersey] Department of Education,” said Sciarra. “Because of the lack of public disclosure about it [and] refusal to be open and transparent, the public is left in the dark about what happened here.”
Hua Mei’s supporters haven’t given up, however, despite the fact that New Jersey’s charter school debate rages on. The group reapplied on Oct. 17 for consideration in the next round. Decisions will be announced in January 2012.
The new application saw some significant revisions, including the fact that only two districts—Maplewood-South Orange and West Orange—would be the source of students, down from five in the original proposal. All five districts wrote letters to the State Department of Education opposing the charter when it first applied.
The would-be charter has ended its battle with Millburn—an affluent town with schools typically considered among the state’s best—when the district announced this fall that it would reintroduce strategic global languages at the elementary school level, said Gassner-Snyder.
Livingston is also off the list of districts from which Hua Mei would potentially draw students. Gassner-Snyder explained that the “animosity and the legal muscle they can flex [are] just not something we can withstand.”
A version of this story ran on the New Jersey Monthly’s website.