This is a guest post by Harry Lee, president of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association, and Patricia Morgan, executive director of JerseyCAN.
Every student in New Jersey deserves to go to school in a safe, secure, and healthy school building. Since the 1980’s (when the New Jersey Supreme Court established a constitutional mandate that the state provide funding to low-income school districts), the state of New Jersey has spent roughly $15 billion on school construction and repair, much of it in our neediest districts. This support has been critical to creating safe, modern school facilities in communities like Newark, Camden, Trenton and Paterson.
However, the makeup of the school community and options have changed dramatically in these districts over the last 20 years. In the 1990’s, the first public charter schools in New Jersey were just getting off the ground. Today, public charter and renaissance schools serve 60,000 kids statewide — and nearly one-in-five students in the former Abbott districts. Public charter and renaissance schools are a critical option for many families yet they have not received any funding for facilities from the state. This isn’t fair to these families or reflective of a commitment to creating safe, modern public schools for all students.
As state leaders consider authorizing new funding to continue this vital effort, they must ensure that ALL public schools have access to facilities funding.
A recent report from our organizations — drawn from a comprehensive survey of public charter and renaissance school operators across the state – found that public charter and renaissance schools are in need of $900 million in construction, renovation, or capital improvement funds over the next decade. The biggest facilities challenges faced by public charter and renaissance schools are overcrowding, the need for building safety improvements, and the need for maintenance repairs and upgrades.
New Jersey’s public charter and renaissance schools are very high-performing, but their programming has suffered because they are forced to divert money and time toward identifying, raising capital for, and maintaining their own facilities. In fact, our report shows that 82% of public charter school leaders indicate that their education programs currently suffer due to the lack of any type of public facilities funding. When asked how schools would redirect savings from any new facilities funding, 70% of school leaders responded that they would increase pay for teachers or hire additional teaching staff.
One example of a school struggling to make the numbers work — while still delivering a world-class education to their students — is Paul Robeson Charter School in Trenton. Paul Robeson was recently honored as a Lighthouse District by the state for its exemplary performance. Yet Paul Robeson is forced to spend a chunk of its annual budget renting a 100-year-old building without a library or outdoor space.
Paul Robeson is just one example, but the stories of public charter and renaissance schools making-do with less number in the dozens. These schools have the same right to quality facilities as any other public school.
Importantly, including public charter and renaissance schools in any future authorization of funding will mean MORE money for communities like Trenton, not less. Currently, the needs of one-in-five students aren’t being factored into the state’s projection of facilities needs. This funding will ensure that public charter schools can provide safe and secure school buildings for the students that they serve.
The Abbott decisions were meant to help disadvantaged communities overcome deep and structural inequities that prevented New Jersey’s low-income students from reaching their full potential. Thanks to state leaders, billions of dollars have been spent working to ensure that students in these districts aren’t held back by the school buildings where they learn. Today, New Jersey leaders have an opportunity to bring this program up to date, by ensuring that all students are included, and guaranteeing that the comprehensive needs of each community are met.