Charter School Envy, Part I

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Just months ago the charter school movement in New Jersey had the wind at its sails. With a record number of DOE approvals (23!) this year, these autonomous public schools were on a roll. Gov. Christie and Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf were strong advocates. Highly-regarded charter school operators were cautiously exploring expansion. Newark was flush with Facebook dollars, many of them earmarked for charters.

Yet within a short period of time the winds have shifted and charter school advocates are under attack. Last Saturday the New Jersey School Board Association almost unanimously (93%) approved a resolution that would subject aspiring charter schools to a public vote which, Comm. Cerf predicted, will end new charters. Monday afternoon the Assembly Education Committee will consider a bill sponsored by Patrick Diegnan that does the same thing. Save Our Schools NJ has an agenda that includes “local community control over charter schools.” And yesterday the renowned Education Law Center put out a 10-part “improvement” plan for NJ’s charter school law that would restrict development and approval.

Let’s first look at the NJSBA/SOS/Diegnan agenda.

The legislation urged by this coalition is informed by an anti-charter sentiment rooted in suburban soil, a fearful posture that views “boutique” charter schools – like those with immersion Hebrew or Mandarin curricula – as a suck on money and high-performing students. But mostly money. At the NJSBA’s Delegate Assembly on Saturday (video here) the President of the Princeton School Board noted that her district budgets $5 million a year to Princeton Charter School; she warned, “you will have charter schools coming to your district very soon.”

It’s a little sneaky, a little bit of a set-up. Sure, we love charter schools. Just put it to a public vote (during elections with tiny turn-out and dominated by traditional public school parents) and we’ll all be happy.

Duplicity aside, the delegates’ resentment is understandable. Suburban districts have seen their state aid eviscerated, their DOE oversight multiplied through gratuitous accountability regulations. In their eyes, charter schools are free of much of the regulatory mechanisms that hamstring traditional districts, free to function without union rules and state certification guidelines.

Suburban school districts have a bad case of charter envy.

To the delegates it’s not a level playing field. And the reiterated cry – “it’s taxation without representation!” – is personal. If a traditional district wants to build a new school, then it floats a second question to voters. If a charter wants to open a new school, it applies to the DOE. Where’s the justice?

Here’s the thing. Princeton families mostly have school choice. Probably many of the parents of students in Princeton Regional School District moved there because the public schools are great. For higher-income people, school choice just means moving to the next town. But families in Camden and Willingboro are stuck with the schools in Camden and Willingboro. They can’t afford to move to the better schools in Cherry Hill and Moorestown.

The Diegnan bill has some powerful advocates. But it’s a bad bill. Does our charter legislation need tweaking? You bet. Does it need such a wrench that it obliterates charter expansion? No. Yet that’s what the Assembly Education Committee will deliberate on next week.

This is all supposed to be about kids, right? Yet the Diegnan bill is all about adults, promising protection for school board members, administrators, and parents in well-off suburban communities. It’s great politics. It’s just lousy education policy.

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