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What's a Charter School?

A look at what they are and what's next for these schools


Time for a pop quiz. Charter schools are: A) profit-hungry pseudo-public schools intent on draining money from cash-starved traditional school districts and creaming off high-achieving students, or B) innovative public schools that offer educational choices to families, especially those trapped in chronically-failing districts.

No test anxiety necessary; this question confounds educators, lobbyists, and policymakers, transforming educational issues into political ones.  For a sense of heated rhetoric that charter schools inspire, consider teacher union president Wendell Steinhauer, who punches “A,” railing that charter schools are “the pernicious corporate reform agenda of large-scale privatization being promoted and financed by people with a financial stake in the outcome.” Buzz. Wrong answer. Let’s strip away the rhetoric. 

Let’s review the facts.

Charter schools are public schools, just not traditional ones. New Jersey is one of 41 states, plus the District of Columbia, which has legislation that permits qualified charter operators to open independent schools.  

While laws vary from state to state, NJ’s 21-year-old law mandates that, after a rigorous application process, charters may be approved by the State Commissioner of Education for four-year cycles. Authorization is rescinded if a pattern emerges of poor performance. New Jersey’s public education system currently includes 87 non-profit charter schools, which enroll 33,500 students, or  2.4 percent of the total public school population.  (Another 20,000 children are on waiting lists.) 

There are no admissions criteria or entrance exams; seats are allotted through parent application and, if necessary, lotteries. Children with disabilities and English Language Learners are eligible, and preference may only be given to siblings of currently-enrolled children. Charter school students take the same standardized tests as students in traditional public schools and cover the same coursework. Charters have their own boards of education and are funded by a combination of tuition payments from school districts, state aid, and private fund-raising. Simply enough: Charter schools provide alternatives to traditional public schools. So why all the bluster from both charter detractors and proponents?

Call it the politics of resentment, particularly from those faithful to NJ’s traditional educational system. Teacher unions and affiliated organizations fear that charter schools could eat into their market share and offer innovations that would be tricky to implement in district schools. (Charter teachers can unionize but they don’t have to.) For example, charters are unyoked from the traditional six hours a day, 180-school year calendar memorialized in many school board/union contracts, typically offering longer days and school years and various wrap-around services. In many charter schools, salaries are linked to classroom effectiveness—merit pay is a verboten to union officials—and lifelong tenure is harder to come by.

Then there’s the money.

High-achieving suburban districts have little affection for charters. Balancing budgets is already an onerous exercise, with school boards hamstrung by 2 percent annual tax-increase caps and meager state aid. Add tuition payments to charter schools (by law, districts pay “up to” 90 percent of the cost per pupil, although the average is 70 percent) and “resentment” barely approaches the bitter pique expressed by defenders of the status quo.

Can you blame them?

Princeton Regional Public Schools (Mercer County) is one of NJ’s best districts, where almost every student graduates from high school ready for college or career. Yet this fine district must lay out $5 million each year from its $77 million annual budget to cover tuition payments for 344 students enrolled in Princeton Charter School. Former Princeton Superintendent Judith Wilson testified to the NJ State Board of Education that the “rapid and reckless” expansion of charter schools will force districts “to slash programs and resources.”

Certainly, it’s hard to make a case that Princeton Charter School students would suffer educational harm by attending the great traditional schools in this Ivy League township. (No doubt Princeton Charter School parents would beg to differ.) But let’s look down south to Camden City Public Schools (Camden County), arguably NJ’s worst school district, despite state expenditures of more than $27,000 for each of its 13,000 students this year.

There are 26 traditional public schools in Camden. Twenty-three of them are on NJ’s list of its 75 lowest-performing schools. For example, at Pyne Poynt Family School, where almost all the students are economically-disadvantaged, 88 percent of sixth-grade students failed the state’s basic skills test in math and 86 percent failed language arts.  

Many Camden parents are desperate for educational alternatives, but you can’t move to a better school district if you can’t afford the housing. A year and a half ago, in fact, three mothers of Camden elementary school students sued the NJ Department of Education, arguing that Camden’s persistent educational dysfunction deprived their children of their constitutional right to a “thorough and efficient system of education” and that they should have access to effective schools. (The case was never resolved.) 

Gradually, Camden families are turning to the expanding sector of charter schools. In September, one in four students will attend charter schools. 

What next?

Indeed, the Christie Administration (whatever its flaws) has shifted charter school expansion exclusively to NJ’s most troubled school districts. The Urban Hope Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation, allows new hybrid district/charter schools in Camden, Trenton, and Newark. Top charter operators like KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon Schools, with long histories of success, will open new Camden schools in the next two years. 

This progress comes at a cost. This year, $55 million of Camden City Public Schools’ $300 million budget went to charter schools. Next year, the tab will be $71 million. It’s not unrealistic to project that eventually half of Camden’s public school students will attend charter schools instead of traditional schools. Teachers and administrators will be laid off—400 this year—and, if history is any guide, not many will choose to work in charter schools. The district’s Board of Education will be politically diminished as enrollment drops. 

But could any parent wish for his or her child to attend Pyne Poynt Family School rather than, say, TEAM Charter School in Newark (run by KIPP), where all students, equally afflicted by poverty, pass the state basic skills tests?

In the end, this isn’t about politics or turf or diminishing market shares. It’s about children. The correct answer is “B.” 

Laura Waters is an NJ school board member and author of the blog NJ Left Behind. The views expressed here are her own.

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