Tuesday, June 14, 2016

NJ Charter Expansion Once Again On The Rise

It would appear that Chris Christie's NJDOE is up to their old tricks again. 

NJCSA's Nicole Cole with Christie at
Bergen Arts and Science Charter School
Governor Christie has been prancing around the state, meeting with charter parents (see here, here, here and here), and New Jersey Charter Schools Association staff (see photo), boldly proclaiming that before he leaves office he will all but completely deregulate charter schools. He even delivered the keynote address at the New Jersey Charter Schools Association conference where he took more than a couple of predictable swipes at the NJEA.

In a speech Thursday at the New Jersey Charter School's Conference in Atlantic City, Christie said teachers unions are stealing from children and taxpayers while charter schools are doing "God's work." 
"Their philosophy is that every one of their jobs, every one of their perks is more important than changing the system that they know is failing," Christie said of teachers unions.
Charter schools, where teachers are not unionized and last-in-first-out policies do not apply, are more focused on students, Christie told a crowd of hundreds of charter school teacher (sic) and administrators. 
As Christie travels the state cozying up to the charter sector, and bashing traditional public schools, I've noticed that the charter application process has once again become a three ring circus.  

Yesterday it was announced that nine out of twenty four charter applications were advanced to Phase 2 of the state's March 2016 charter application round. That announcement came over three weeks late, according the the NJDOE's own timeline for the application process. 

But more on that later.

In the previous round of charter applications, announced in February of this year, Commissioner Hespe approved three new charters and sixteen expansion requests. A Christie Administration press release boasted that the 2016-2017 school year would see a 10% increase in charter seats across the state. No word of course as to how districts would pay for those seats, just this bold proclamation from Commissioner Hespe.
Expanding the number of charter schools and seats available ensures that students and parents, especially in our academically struggling districts, have more options to achieve success.
No mention that cities like Newark, Paterson and Camden are struggling to fund their traditional public schools as the state opens an endless stream of charter seats, siphoning more students out of neighborhood schools and more dollars out of the district's budget.  

No mention of the fact that the state capped the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which they must pay for, because, in Hespe's own words, the program became unsustainable.
“It’s fiscally unsustainable,” state Education Commissioner David Hespe said in an interview. “The program has increased fivefold. The cost has increased fivefold.”
Instead of actually stopping out of control charter growth in the hardest hit cities, the NJDOE feigns restraint in their charter school program by adding lines like this one to their press release.
There are currently 89 charter schools in New Jersey. Since 2010, 39 new charter schools have opened and the Department has closed 17 due to academic, operational or financial deficiencies.
But take a look at this chart I prepared for a presentation I gave in Montclair, a town now forced to continue to mount a defense against a charter application that has made it to Phase 2.

Now keep in mind, this chart only represents new charter approvals - this does not include the expansions that have been approved. As I mentioned above, in the last round only 3 new charters were approved but sixteen were given the go ahead to expand. This resulted in a 10% increase in the number of charter seats in one school year. 

This kind of sudden increase is reminiscent of 2010, when Christie first took office and attempted to radically grow the number of charter seats in New Jersey. He was met with fierce opposition across the state, not only from parents, but from legislators such as Senator Nia Gill who demanded transparency in the approval process as Christie's administration handed out charters as political favors. As the chart above demonstrates, when they were challenged, the number of charter applications and approvals significantly slowed.

It is time for parents and legislators to stand up and demand that same transparency once again.

Allow me to provide an example of the nonsense currently being perpetrated by the NJDOE. 

Here is a screen shot of the March Application Timeline, as it appeared on the Office of Charter Schools website on May 13th, four days before the Phase I decisions were to be announced.

And here is what it looks like today.

Not only does this appear to be a cover for the fact that, as I mentioned previously, the NJDOE was three weeks out of timeline with yesterday's announcement. This also means that with this new scaled back timeline, districts and communities have no idea when they will receive the Phase 2 applications and no idea how long they will be given to prepare their responses to those applications.

No doubt the applicants have been told the submission date for Phase 2 applications, but districts and communities, as usual, are left in the dark. This is just par for the course when a charter school is trying to open in a town. The deck is stacked against the traditional school district, as the state woos and holds the hands of charter applicants and operators.

It is time for the people of this state and their elected representatives in Trenton to once again call the NJDOE out on these shenanigans. Chris Christie's NJDOE makes up their own rules as they go along, and our governor has been very clear that he intends to drastically increase seats while he simultaneously deregulates the charter sector. 

While the New Jersey Charter Schools Association stands behind Christie (much as Christie stands behind Trump), just waiting for their reward, it is incumbent upon the rest of us to ensure that his reckless deregulation plans are thwarted. 

Keep in mind, with the lax regulations currently in place, this administration has had to close seventeen charters for "academic, operational or financial deficiencies." That is an unnecessary and unproductive disruption of the education of thousands of students. How many more children will be put in the care of incompetent charter operators should Christie get his way?

We must demand transparency in the application process, both for new applications, and for expansions. 

Christie's aggressive charter growth and deregulation agenda is poison. 

Sunlight is the best antidote