There are some big changes here, and I will continue to outline them in the coming days and weeks.
But you know what? The NJDOE has been operating as if many of these changes are already in effect. I have caught them not adhering to the existing regulations on more than one occasion, and I have spent countless hours of my life not only catching them, but holding them accountable.
So now they are going to just go ahead and officially make the changes to the regulations they haven't been following in the first place?
Fabulous. Just fabulous.
Allow me to illustrate.
Illustration Number One - Tikun Olam
When I was going through the third Tikun Olam application with a fine tooth comb, I figured out that the three qualifying founders were not eligible applicants, according to the charter school regulations and statute. Here's the definition of "eligible applicant" in the current regulations:
"Eligible applicant" means teaching staff members, parents of children attending the schools of the district board(s) of education, a combination of teaching staff members and parents, or an institution of higher education or a private entity located within the State in conjunction with teaching staff members and parents of children attending the schools of the district board(s) of education.
and here's what the charter school law says about who can apply for a charter:
The regulations and statute are clear that eligible applicants must be parents or teachers of PUBLIC SCHOOL children in the "schools of the district board(s) of education" where the charter is being proposed. In the third Tikun Olam application, two of the qualifying founders were parents of children in private yeshivas, and the other qualifying founder was the parent of a child that attended public school, but in another district entirely. None of them were teachers.
We (me and my fellow Tikun Olam opposition team members) immediately notified the NJDOE. We got no response.
Being the novice that I was, I thought I had found this incredibly egregious thing, and tried to get the press to pay attention. We got no response.
This was when I realized that the charter school law and regulations were ostensibly meaningless. The NJDOE was interpreting them as they saw fit, and no one really seemed to care.
Allow me to prove it. Here is the Application Evaluation Tikun Olam founders received after the third denial - after we had already alerted them to the fact that there was not ONE qualifying founder on the application. There is absolutely no mention of the fact that the three qualifying founders are not eligible applicants. In fact, the first line of the assessment praises the founders for their "breadth of knowledge and expertise."
Application Review Form March 2011 Application
And now check out the request for addenda the Tikun Olam founders received during the fourth application cycle. Highland Park was dropped from the application, and the founders managed to find someone in New Brunswick with one kid in the public schools, but their Edison Qualifying Founder was still a private school parent.
In Section 1.9. Founder Information, the applicant is asked to provide an "additional qualifying founder for Edison Township as per N.J.S.A. 18A:36A-4" (the same statute cited above). Note, this was the FOURTH TIME the same qualifying founder had been on the application, and the NJDOE had never raised an eyebrow. The NJDOE only acknowledged that he was not an eligible application AFTER we had put tremendous public pressure on them with a Town Hall meeting and by Occupying the DOE. Coincidentally, this was right around the time Michael Winerip started asking a lot of questions to research his story on Tikun Olam for the New York Times.
Please Provide an Additional Qualifying Founder
With the new changes they are proposing to the regulations, just about ANYONE will become eligible to apply for a charter school. Here is how they propose to change the definition:
The current charter school law and regulations ensure that parents and teachers in the public schools of a district can identify a need in their schools and create an alternative to address that specific unmet need. With the proposed changes, a teacher from anywhere in the state and/or a non-public school parent, can come into the public schools of a district and tell the parents that rely on those public schools what charter they are going to get.
And the all powerful Commissioner can come in from up on high and approve it against the wishes of the district.
And there would be no way to fight it.
Illustration Number Two - Regis Academy
Back In February I blogged about the (lack of) enrollment for the Regis Academy approved in Cherry Hill. Cherry Hill community members had attended a Regis Academy Board Meeting and heard Amir Khan bragging that the NJDOE had allowed him to expand his districts, and that he could start pulling kids from Hoboken if he wanted! I did some digging, via OPRA, and learned that he had indeed requested to expand his districts. In fact, he sent a letter to Deputy Commissioner Andy Smarick which contained enrollment projections for eight districts, not just the four he was approved to serve.
Regis Request to Change Region of Residence
Days later the Courier Post followed up with an article (sorry, unavailable already...) stating that the NJDOE claimed they DENIED Regis' request to expand their districts. I blogged about this too, and added that I learned from both Cherry Hill and Lawnside representatives that despite the NJDOE's claim that they had denied Amir Khan's request, they had sent out revised budget projections to their districts based on the numbers Amir Khan sited in the above letter.
Now, check out the new powers the Acting Commissioner will have if he gets these changes made to the regulations. He will be able to make the following amendments to a charter, without any input from the districts that will be affected. Once he approves a charter he has the authority to:
And there would be no way to fight it.
Oh, and not for nothing, but Amir Khan was the qualifying founder for Voorhees on the Regis Academy application. He has no children currently in the Voorhees public schools and he is not a teacher. Big surprise, right? His application was approved but he was not even an eligible applicant.
The proposed changes enable just about anyone in the state to apply for a charter. The Commissioner retains his ability to approve a charter against the wishes of a district that will be forced to pay for it. And once a charter is approved the Commissioner can expand the charter in any way he sees fit, including adding additional districts or opening additional campuses in other districts, so long as they are former Abbott districts or have even just one "priority" school.
So much for local control.
So now you know why I take this so personally. Presently there are at least regulations in place that provide some protection to districts that are having charters they don't want or need foisted on them by individuals with absolutely nothing at stake in their public schools. I have been able to rely on these regulations to stop the NJDOE from acting with reckless abandon and running roughshod over these districts. If Acting Commissioner Cerf has his way he will be almost entirely unaccountable to districts and taxpayers.
I for one am going to see if I can't figure out a way to stop this.
Who's with me?