I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, July 8, 2012

NJ Charters: A Growing Embarrassment

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey

Something is very wrong with charter schools in New Jersey.

This week, the citizens and school boards of Cherry Hill and Voorhees won a major battle against a proposed charter school that neither community wanted nor needed. Blue Jersey has previously detailed the story of Regis Academy's founder, Pastor Amor Khan, an anti-marriage equity crusader and political ally of Chris Christie.

Khan admitted - and his initial application clearly showed - that he needed the charter funds that would come from local taxpayers to pay off the mortgage on the property he was attempting to buy. The property would have housed both the charter and his ministry's other operations, a clear conflict of interest the local school boards and parent activists pointed out repeatedly.

But because charter schools in New Jersey need not be approved by their local school boards, the local sending districts - which eventually grew to include over 30 districts all over South Jersey - had to set aside millions of dollars on the possibility Regis would open its doors this fall.

When the deal for the original property fell through, Khan had to scramble to find a new site - a surprise to the local school boards and residents. At this point, even the NJDOE had to admit that there were too many "misrepresentations" in the Regis application; this week, they denied final approval to the charter. Of course, the budget is set in the sending districts; what happens to the money now is anyone's guess.

Had Regis been the only charter with problems, charter supporters could brush off this unfortunate outcome as an isolated incident. But charters are becoming an embarrassment all over the state:

- This morning, Jessica Calefati reports in the Star-Ledger on a charter school - Adelaide Sanford - that is allegedly paying rent on properties it doesn't use. The issue seems to be similar to the one with Regis: the school and the landlord are one in the same, allowing tax dollars set aside for charters to be used to pay rent on properties being used for other purposes.

- Newark's schools are still under state control, but this week, the elected "advisory board" rejected a plan to allow colocation of charters with public schools. State-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson went ahead with the scheme in contradiction to the board, despite the fact that the charters which will share facilities are either new schools with no record of success, or charters that serve substantially different student populations than the neighboring public schools.

- But even that wasn't enough for the NJDOE. In a remarkable move, the state released its review of practices in the Newark district at the same time Anderson overrode the board's colocation vote. That review shows the district has gone backwards in the time under Anderson's watch, making it less likely the state will relinquish control back to local citizens.

Yes, that's right: the NJDOE says Newark has gone backwards under state control; therefore, the state needs to retain control. Lewis Carroll couldn't have invented logic more absurd.

- In Camden, the state continues to drag its feet on the building of a new school at Lanning Square. Local activists are demanding the local board take action against the state to force the project forward. But South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross has his eye on the parcel for a new charter school. Plans for the new public school have found their way to the construction firm working on behalf of Norcross; is Lanning Street going to wind up hosting a charter instead of a public school?

- Last month, the blog Schools Matter posted a stunning email, reportedly from an anonymous former NJDOE employee. The post alleges that NJDOE staffers linked to the Broad Superintendents Academy (from which ACTING Commissioner Chris Cerf graduated) are planning to force locally-run charters to give up control to national charter management firms. Paul Robeson Charter in Trenton is being taken over by Scholars Academies, allegedly the first of the local charters to give up its operations.

All of this is taking place in the context of a charter system in New Jersey that, on average, does no better at educating students than the public schools when accounting for student backgrounds. ACTING Commissioner Cerf promised a report on charter performance to justify expanding their reach across the state; that was 489 days ago! Sources tell me the NJDOE is working to hire a conservative think-tank to produce this report.

But we don't need any research to tell us this: the charter system in New Jersey is broken. It is being driven by ideological, rather than educational, concerns. Our students deserve a charter plan that incorporates strict fiscal oversight, a layer of local approval and control, transparency, and demonstrable success in boosting student achievement.

Until this system is repaired, there should be a moratorium on new charters, and the existing charter system should undergo a thorough review from a source outside of the NJDOE. If there was ever a time for the Legislature to step up and investigate New Jersey's charter approval and oversight processes, this is it.

1 comment:

Deb said...

Amen, amen. And just wait if K12 gets their money grubbing paws in this state......

Thanks Duke for calling it like it is!