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

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Hopelessly Broken NJ Charter Oversight System

Better late than never: the NJDOE has released the list of new charter schools that have received final approval to open this fall:

Among those approved, Camden will see two new charter schools. The only final charter approved for Newark was the new Philip’s Academy Charter School, a conversion from the former St. Philip’s Academy, an independent private school. The K-8 school will serve Newark, Irvington and East Orange.
The other five approved, all elementary schools, are the following:
  • Camden Community Charter School, Camden,
  • Compass Academy Charter School, Millville, Vineland, Pittsgrove
  • Hope Community Charter School, Camden
  • Jersey City Global Charter School, Jersey City
  • Paterson Arts and Science Charter School, Paterson.
So what do we know about these schools?

- Jersey City Global Charter School: In an outstanding piece of investigative journalism, Darcie Cimarusti at Mother Crusader has detailed the many, many failures of the man who will provide "leadership" to JCGCS, Sam Howard. Even as Howard was working to establish charters in New Jersey, he was at the center of the worst charter school failure in the nation: the shuttering of six Imagine Schools charters in St. Louis, closed for fiscal mismanagement and academic failure.

The NJDOE apparently does not care about Howard's track record, even as charter authorizers and advocates themselves have pointed to the failure of Imagine's schools as a cautionary tale. And it no doubt helped JCGCS that one of their board members is a valued political advisor to Chris Christie.

- Camden Community Charter School: I wrote a two-part series on this charter this past March. In Part I, I tell the story of the man who will run CCCS, Vahan Gureghian, an "entrepreneur" who has become incredibly wealthy by managing charter schools in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Gureghian was the single largest individual donor to PA Governor Tom Corbett's last campaign; trading in on that influence, he has essentially rewritten the commonwealth's laws to drain money away from public schools and into his coffers. His actions bankrupted the Chester, PA school district, even as his charter was caught in allegations of cheating that were never properly investigated.

In Part II, I detail how Gureghian has started dropping campaign cash into the South Jersey Democratic machine, setting up a sweetheart Camden land deal that echoes his exploits in Pennsylvania.

- Paterson Arts and Science Charter School: As I reported back in February, PASCS is a charter affiliated with the Gulenist movement. Both the New York Times and 60 Minutes have raised disturbing questions about this network of charters, including their practices of abusing H1-B visas and steering contracts exclusively to Turkish-owned businesses. Bruce Baker has shown the schools often pay teachers considerably lower wages than public school teachers.

As I reported in 2011, another school in PASCS's network, Bergen Arts and Science Charter School, has a substantially different student population than its neighboring public schools. Bergen A&S had more Asian students than all the rest of Garfield's public schools combined.

In spite of the serious questions about these three schools, NJDOE has allowed them to open this fall. In every case, the local community had no final say in each charter's authorization, and must hand over significant amounts of their own school budgets to each charter, with no way to oversee those charters' budgets.

What assurances do the citizens of Jersey City have that Sam Howard won't enrich himself once again and create an educational nightmare as he did in St. Louis? How will the people of Camden know if Vahan Gureghian wreaks havoc on their district as he did in Chester? How can Paterson's taxpayers be sure that PASCS isn't engaging in unfair labor practices or segregating its students?

At some level, granting any new charter is a leap of faith. But, in these three cases, there is more than enough evidence to suggest that any benefit these schools may impart to their communities is not worth the risk.

The charter school oversight system in New Jersey is an utter disaster. There should be a moratorium on all new charter schools unless and until the legislature passes new laws that require serious vetting of charter applications, including a provision for local approval.

Accountability begins at home.

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