Pa., N.J. miss out on federal charter school start-up money

Posted: November 29, 2010

New Jersey's proposed charter schools, hailed by Gov. Christie as part of his school-choice agenda, are at record numbers. But the state has no new start-up money for them because it failed to win another federal education grant.

Pennsylvania, where Gov.-elect Tom Corbett has likewise expressed support for charters among school-choice options, also was one of five states turned down for the funds. Twelve states were successful.

New Jersey sought about $14 million, and Pennsylvania applied for $30 million, both to be used over three years.

The federal program is intended to help charter schools and applicants cover preliminary expenses such as program development, securing nonprofit status, and hiring accountants, lawyers, and consultants. It can give new schools the chance to get off to a good start with books, equipment, and supplies.

The states can reapply, probably in the spring, but money awarded next year might arrive too late for schools with September openings.

New Jersey, which has 73 charters, said in its application that it hoped to open 30 more within three years. Seven, including schools in Camden and Willingboro, already have been approved to open in September.

Pennsylvania has 145 charters and expects to add 20 to 25 in the next three years.

Since the U.S. Department of Education's charter school program was launched in 1995, each state has won four awards. The most recent were in 2006, when Pennsylvania was granted $12 million and New Jersey got $6.2 million, both dispensed over four years, said Scott Pearson, acting director of the program.

In New Jersey, the grants typically resulted in about $150,000 per new charter.

Pamela Brown, an art educator who wants to offer full-day kindergarten with an arts emphasis at her proposed Voorhees Charter School, said the money would be a godsend.

"Funding for a start-up is especially significant," said Brown, who now plans to look for other money. "The first five years, there's so much you need to purchase."

The states were notified in the summer that they had failed to qualify. As in the recent Race to the Top federal grant competition, in which New Jersey and Pennsylvania twice vied unsuccessfully for up to $400 million, the states' applications were found lacking.

New Jersey received 61.3 percent of the possible points; Pennsylvania got 60.1 percent, Pearson said. States that won grants scored between 67 percent and 85.7 percent, he said.

Five reviewers graded the states on criteria including strength of their charter management and monitoring plans, how the schools would contribute to student achievement, and flexibility of the states' charter laws. In their aggregate scores, Pennsylvania and New Jersey lost points in every category.

New Jersey intends to try again for the funds, state education spokesman Alan Guenther said. If it falls short once more, "we will have to see what we can do" to help the start-ups, he said.

The state does not now have alternative funding, he said, but education officials are working to create a mentor program to help proposed and existing charters.

Not qualifying for the money was disappointing, said Steven Weitzman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

"I'm told it was a matter of other states improving and raising the competitive bar for the grants more than Pennsylvania somehow falling down," Weitzman said.

"As to filling the hole," he said, "I can only say the new governor and new session of the legislature will have to establish their priorities and determine the next steps."

New Jersey Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D., Essex) has vowed to look into the state's failure to secure funds. "It looks to me like the Christie administration totally, totally dropped the ball on this and submitted a very sketchy, thrown-together application," Oliver said.

The application was submitted during the tenure of education chief Bret Schundler. Rochelle Hendricks, then in charge of the state's school-choice operation, replaced Schundler as acting commissioner in August.

Charter school advocates said that not receiving the federal aid is significant.

Lawrence Jones Jr., president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools and founder of the Richard Allen Charter School in Philadelphia, said he was "extremely disappointed."

The grants give candidates "an opportunity to present an excellent charter application," Jones said. "A large number of schools, including ours, were able to start up because they had that funding."

For the newly approved, "loss of the money makes it very difficult to put together a high-quality operation," he said. He wondered if charters were high enough on the Rendell administration's priority list.

New Jersey recently announced a record 50 charters seeking state approval, encouraged by Christie's frequently voiced support of school choice. An additional 29 applications were submitted earlier in the year, Guenther said.

Nine of the 50 recent applicants, including a "virtual" school aimed at high school dropouts, would serve South Jersey. They will be notified in January if they are approved. Some of the prospective schools are in Camden, where the area's charters are most concentrated.

But the list of prospective schools also represents the desire for choice in well-regarded South Jersey districts.

In addition to the Voorhees Charter School, with its proposed focus on early-childhood education, the Regis Academy Charter Society would serve Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Somerdale, and Lawnside. Amir Khan, a businessman and pastor of the Solid Rock Worship Center, who submitted the application, said the school would use the "micro society" education model, which allows children to learn by creating their own community with jobs and responsibilities.

Not having the $150,000 distributions challenges new schools, said Carlos Perez, chief officer of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. "This is how you buy your books, hire people," Perez aid.

The federal Department of Education allows individual charters to apply for start-up funds if their states don't receive them. Four in New Jersey and three in Pennsylvania got funds over the summer, after the states were turned down, Pearson said.

The $150,000 "would have made my life a lot easier," said Nicholle Anatol, who hopes her Willingboro Academy Charter School is approved in January. She said she would seek money elsewhere for things such as laptops and library books.

Michael White, an education consultant and former principal, said he would look for other grants and in-kind contributions if his Medical Science Leadership Development Charter School is approved. The middle school would be in Gloucester Township.

The federal money "would be a tremendous amount of help," White said.


Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.

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