Education Law Center seeks changes to state charter school law

In the wake of a Trenton charter school’s recent closure, the Education Law Center Tuesday proposed 10 changes it believes will impove the state’s charter school law.

The Capital Preparatory High School in Trenton  will close due to serious fiscal irregularities and financial mismanagement. Since 1996, an estimated 31 charter schools, or nearly one-third of all NJDOE-approved charter schools, have surrendered their charters or had their charters revoked or not renewed, according to ELC.

Although such schools are a centerpiece of Gov. Christie’s reform agenda, there is growing evidence of significant problems with New Jersey’s 15-year charter experiment, ELC said in a release.

Data consistently show most charter schools do not outperform host district schools, and a number of charters continually rank as underperforming schools, ELC stated.

In that light, the Center recommended 10 changes to the law:

1) Encouraging Innovation and Supporting Challenging Students

Charter schools were intended to establish innovative programs to serve challenging student populations and needs. To renew this focus, the law should encourage charter schools that can help meet the needs of the state’s most vulnerable students. Priorities should include multi-district charters that strive to serve a socioeconomically or racially diverse student body, charters that develop model programs for students at-risk of dropping out, charters that educate special education students in inclusive settings, and charters that pilot innovative programs for English language learners.

2) Serving Comparable Student Populations

While charters are currently required to seek the admission of a cross-section of the community’s student population, they often enroll far fewer students with disabilities, English language learners, and students eligible for free lunch (very low income). This provision must be strengthened and include a requirement that charters failing to enroll students with demographics comparable to their host district(s) develop and implement a corrective action plan. This may include altering the lottery mechanism to recruit and attract underserved student populations.

3) Increasing Waiting List Transparency

Charter schools should be required to maintain and publish up-to-date waiting lists for admission. These lists should include demographic information such as student grade level, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status (free or reduced lunch), limited English proficiency, and special education status. This would ensure that waiting lists and charters attract a representative cross-section of a sending district’s student population.

4) Tracking Mid-Year Transfers

Students often leave and enter charters during the school year, and there are reports that students exit in advance of the administration of state assessments. Charters should be required to collect, maintain and report on all student transfers during the school year, including student demographic data, reasons for transfer out of the charter, and information on subsequent educational placements after leaving the school.

5) Improving Annual DOE Evaluations

While the Commissioner of Education is required to perform an annual evaluation of every charter school, these evaluations are, incredibly, not in writing nor made public. The Commissioner should be required to issue a written annual evaluation of the performance of each charter, with full public disclosure, including the school’s progress in meeting the goals and objectives in its specific charter.

6) Requiring A Comprehensive Five-Year Program Evaluation

NJ’s original charter law mandated the Commissioner to authorize an independent evaluation in 2000, but the charter program has not been evaluated since then. The Commissioner should be required to complete an independent, comprehensive evaluation every five years, with recommendations for improving program implementation.

7) Closing Persistently Underperforming Charters

Under the current law, there are no standards nor requirements for closing charter schools that continually fail to meet NCLB and state performance benchmarks. The law should set standards for shutting down failing charters. Charter revocation should also be authorized for a persistent failure to make reasonable and appropriate efforts to serve student populations comparable to the host district.

In the event that a charter is revoked, the NJDOE and local districts should be required to provide parents and guardians with information about the assignment of students to district schools, with the prompt transfer of student records to the district. An independent audit of the closing charter school should also be conducted to classify any assets remaining after all debts have been paid. These assets should then be returned to their source, with property and equipment turned over to the district.

8) Establishing Educational Collaboration in High Need Districts

Both charter and district schools, especially in high need districts, urgently require high quality technical assistance to improve instruction, collect relevant data, evaluate programs and identify effective practices. To meet this requirement, high need districts should establish an educational collaboration with charter schools in the district to support improvement of instructional programs, best practices, research, data collection and evaluation.

9) Ensuring Funding Equity and Accountability

Charters should receive the full 100% per pupil funding for the “base cost” set in the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), rather than the 90% they currently receive, plus any additional funding generated by the SFRA “weights” for at-risk, ELL and special education students actually served by the charter.

Some charters receive funds from private sources and in-kind donations, but they are not presently required to disclose such revenue. Charters should be required to complete revenue and expenditure budgets, just as districts must do, including any money or in-kind contributions received from foundations, corporations, individuals or other donors.

When a student leaves a charter school after October 15 and returns to a district school, the charter should be required to return the student’s pro-rated per pupil funding to the district. This would also apply in reverse if a district student moves to a charter school during the school year but after October 15.

10) Creating a Mechanism for Local Input on Charter Authorization

Charter schools have a significant impact on the local districts that host them, and local communities should be empowered to decide whether a charter school is in their best interests. A form of local involvement in the decision to create or expand charter schools should be included in the amended charter law. Many grassroots education advocates and members of the NJ Legislature now call for a local vote on charter schools, arguing that additional spending commitments funded from local school budgets fall within the purview of voters. Education Law Center seeks changes to state charter school law