Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Is Chris Cerf Picky Or Gun-Shy About Charters?

John Mooney of NJ Spotlight reported on the two charters that were approved by Comissioner Chris Cerf and team on Monday.  He said the fact that only two were approved demonstrates that "The Christie administration continues to be picky about new charter schools."

I have a different take on it.

I have read a NJDOE press release or two in my day, and the ones that come out about charter approvals tell a much different story.  Here are some highlights from the last four press releases.

January, 2011:  Acting Commissioner Cerf had just been appointed; here is what he had to say about the announcement of the record 23 charter applications approved in that round.
The record number of new charter schools approved today is a tangible example of Governor Christie’s commitment to bold and ambitious education reforms to put children first in New Jersey.
Huh, OK, so lots of charter approvals = GOOD! 

September, 2011  This is the first round completely overseen by Acting Commissioner Cerf.  Only four are approved, and there is lots of talk about the National Association of Charter School Authorizers working with the NJDOE to continue to "improve the application evaluation to align with national best practices"

This is the round where Regis Academy was approved in Cherry Hill, which as we now know was an unmitigated disaster for Cerf and Christie.  

Yet, here is what Cerf had to say in the press release:

The most important bar that any applicant must clear is demonstrating that the school has a very high likelihood of providing an excellent education to its students.  Through our rigorous review process, we became confident that these four schools will offer students a great education on day one of the school year.
Knowing what we know now about Regis, Cerf's "confidence" is down right comical.

And huh, OK, now less charter approvals = GOOD!

January 2012:  Cerf is now firmly entrenched as Commissioner, he has a full year under his belt.  This is the round where my community came down hard on Cerf and the NJDOE for their lack of transparency and accountability to districts, and the ELC and Senator Nia Gill came down hard on them for not releasing the names of the outside reviewers contracted to evaluate charter applications.

So this time around the press release not only talks about how hard they are working to "strengthen" the application review process, it is filled with platitudes about how seriously they take public input:
The Department also receives and reviews significant public comment during this process. 
In the third part of the process, the Department brings each team in for an intensive, in-person interview where applicants are asked about both the academic and operational components of the proposed school.  In addition, the public and district comments received are incorporated into the interview questions. The review team also closely examines the school’s financial plan and budget.  The Commissioner of Education then makes a final determination about which applications to approve.  Approval decisions are made based on the quality of the proposed educational program, the capacity of the founding team to implement that program, and the need for the proposed school in the community.  (Emphasis mine)
And at the end of the press release a list of the names of the reviewers appears for the first time.

 October 2012:  This was the quietest application round in quite some time.  No contentious debates about boutique charter schools in thriving districts, no protests at the NJDOE.  There was however some opposition in Hoboken to an application which, if approved, would have continued to increase the segregative effect Hoboken charters already have on that district, but it didn't generate any state wide coverage.

Only two schools were approved, one in Camden and one in Newark.  (St.) Phillips Academy is the first private to charter conversion, and the International Academy of Camden, which Mooney describes as "an elementary school founded by a group of New Jersey entrepreneurs and likely to be run by a private education management organization."

More on the demise of independent, parent/teacher driven charters in another post on another day...

For now, let's get back to the press release.

No list of the external reviewers and less talk about community input this time around.  Without public pressure, the NJDOE goes back to business as usual.  Instead they talk about  "recruiting high-performing charter operators from across the country to expand into New Jersey."  

Read between the lines, and the implication is that if we bring in EMO's and CMO's we don't really need to bother with much review or community input at all, just let the professionals come in and set up shop.  

In the wake of Cerf's decision not to grant a final charter to Regis, along with nine other charters that had been in pipeline, we are treated to lengthy assurances that even though these applications have been approved they still need to obtain their final charter.
In order for any of these schools to open, they must first complete a "preparedness review," to ensure they have the academic, operational components, and capacity to successfully meet the needs of children through a successful academic programs, financial viability, equitability, and organization soundness.  After a review of the applicants' submission of this information in June of 2013, the Commissioner will render a final approval decision in July for charters to open their doors in September.
What happened to the cocksure Cerf of 2011, who bragged that dozens of charter approvals signaled the Christie administrations "commitment to bold and ambitious education reforms to put children first" and his confidence in the application review process, led by NACSA, that ensured that approved applications were ready to provide a "great education on day one of the school year?"

Ya know what happened?  WE HAPPENED!  We, the people of New Jersey.  Parents, teachers, students, professors, education historians and even some of our fine legislators that support public education, and organizations like the Education Law Center and some of the fine folks that work there, like Stan Karp.

We're all doing our best to let them know that we're paying attention and we're going to fight like hell before we let them dismantle our public schools.  

So now Cerf and his Office of Charter Schools are gun-shy.  They're constantly changing their approach to dodge public pressure.  The press releases show that we have them on the run.    

At a recent public meeting in Jersey City Commissioner Cerf said he doesn't read the blogs, but just in case.



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