Proposed N.J. legislation would change charter school guidelines

Posted: July 26, 2010

A proposed bill would allow charter schools to be authorized more quickly, with more diversity, and in greater numbers in New Jersey.

If passed, the bill would grant Rutgers University the power to approve charters and would limit review time for charter applications to five months. Applicants could submit charters on a rolling basis, and charter schools could include single-sex, online, and special-needs schools.

The bill would have some powerful allies, notably Gov. Christie.

"The governor has been a supporter . . . of the charter schools to provide quality education to students regardless of their zip codes," one of his spokespeople said.

The bill could go to the Assembly Education Committee in September, sponsor Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D., Essex) said. Passage would improve New Jersey's chances for the federal Race to the Top program, which awards aid to states that most improve their academic standards, she said.

"We need to show that New Jersey is a friendly environment for charters and one way to do that is to have a secondary authorizer," Jasey said.

Charter schools are funded by taxpayers but operate independent of local school boards. Though they must meet state education requirements, they often use curriculum and philosophy different from those of the districts in which they are based.

New Jersey introduced charters in 1995; about 75 now operate in the state. Gov. Christie has said he'd like that number to grow.

Currently, only the Department of Education can authorize new charters, and applications must be submitted on deadline.

"It's been a small number of people serving a growing number of people who would like to be a part of charter schools," said Claudia Burzichelli, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Effective School Practices.

Not all educators and advocates support new guidelines for charters, given the schools' relative novelty in New Jersey and inconclusive studies on their effectiveness.

"We need to move carefully on this and really examine what has happened in other states that have more decentralized systems of authorizing charter schools," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in Newark.

Pennsylvania's struggle with financial mismanagement and conflicts of interest at charter schools shows the problems with decentralized authority, he said.

"Simply changing the governance structure of schools" is not enough, Sciarra said. Charter and traditional public schools are inextricably linked because "they're both creatures of the state carrying out the state's responsibility."

In a 15-state study, Education Week reported last week inconclusive or contradictory evidence on charter-school effectiveness. On average, though, charter schools tend to do no worse than traditional public schools on standardized testing and student behavior.

Sciarra and Jasey said that the bill should be closely investigated, and that legislators should proceed slowly.

Ultimately, though, the support that Rutgers could offer a fledgling charter could improve school performance, Jasey said.

The university has "the capacity to undertake something like this," she said. "As an authorizer they should do more than just approve or deny applications - they should also have the ability to support the charter schools they approve."

Rutgers' Burzichelli also is confident: "The way you get high-quality charter schools is to have high-quality authorizers."

Charter schools offer a greater diversity and flexibility than traditional public schools, she said. "Students learn differently and can be engaged differently, and I think that we need to explore how different kinds of learning environments and settings might be beneficial to different students."

"Because each charter school operates independently, it's easier to make changes," Jasey said. "It's easier to accommodate the needs of their students."

Charters also have an inherent check. "When charter schools cannot overcome their challenges, then what happens is they lose their charter. There's something to be gained from that kind of accountability system," Burzichelli said.

Jasey said she hoped charters eventually could be beneficial to traditional public schools.

"We haven't been able to figure out how to take the best practices and strategies at charters that are working well and share them with the regular public schools," she said.


Contact staff writer Jen Wulf at 856-779-3228 or jwulf@phillynews.com.

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