Anti-charter Groups Misinterpret the Legislature’s Intent

By Joseph V. Doria, Jr. Ed.D

New Jersey’s embrace of charter schools over the past 15 years has been lukewarm at best.  The original law, of which I was a prime sponsor, was signed in January 1996 and envisioned a fairly robust demand. In anticipation of that, the law placed a cap of 135 charter schools for the first four years.

This past January, the state had just 73 charters.

A combination of factors, including bureaucratic inertia as well as opposition from the education establishment and some politicians, has contributed to the rather slow pace of the charter school movement.

But that’s quickening now in part to the strong support from Gov. Chris Christie and members of the state Legislature.  This year, state education officials approved 23 new charters and nine  opened this school year.

And there is legislation pending designed to improve the process by allowing other organizations — and not just the state — to review and approve charter applications and oversee charter schools.

Despite these advances, there is reason for concern.  Charters are doing well in the urban areas, offering parents an alternative to the failing traditional public schools. In fact, the charters in the cities can’t keep up with the demand, with more than 10,000 on a waiting list.

All seem to agree that charter school law is doing exactly what it was designed to do — in the cities.  Their purpose is to create a model which the public schools can emulate.

But when it comes to the suburbs — well, that’s different.

There are some members of the education establishment who believe the law’s promise of choice should not extend to the suburbs. And now that the charters are taking root in some suburbs, they are intent on doing what it takes to stunt that growth.

Let me be clear: from the start the intent was to allow charters throughout the state. We wanted all parents to have a choice about the type of public school that was right for their children. We wanted all districts to benefit from the innovations charters could bring about.

At the time, the state Legislature believed the “establishment of a charter school program is in the best interests of the students of this state and it is therefore the public policy of the state to encourage and facilitate the development of charter schools.”

Nowhere does it mention that suburbs should be off-limits.

In no way do I want to suggest that the charter law shouldn’t be reviewed and changes made. Requiring improved accountability and revising the approval process are just two proposals under consideration by the state Legislature.

Those changes don’t alter the law’s tenets.

But another proposed change would. There is a push to require school district voters to approve every new charter. Such a mandate would virtually kill charter schools in the suburbs where the opposition could mount expensive campaigns to defeat any proposed charter school. Such an initiative would also hurt charters in urban areas, where charters are thriving.

Founders trying to start a charter couldn’t possibly compete and would likely be discouraged from even trying to establish a school.

The original intent of the law was inclusion of all school districts. Not exclusion.

Let’s erase any misunderstandings of what the charters are all about.

They’re not about replacing traditional public schools, but rather supplementing them. They’re intended to offer an option to parents and students searching for a different approach to education.

Charter schools are meant to be models of what is possible for education if we think a bit outside the box. They’re learning laboratories that hopefully produce innovative approaches that can be replicated in other public school classrooms across the state.

Should such innovation be confined to city schools? I can’t understand why.

Can all educators, even those in successful districts, benefit from having at hand the data of what worked and what didn’t work in the non-traditional charter schools, which are free to pursue new approaches to learning? I certainly think so.

My decades in politics tells me what really bothers opponents of charters is money. It always comes down to money.

The belief is that the public charter school kids are taking money from the local district and thereby depriving kids attending traditional public schools of their fair share of funding.

As a result, charters in suburbs will destroy the quality education these districts provide, so the argument goes.

Of course that’s a rather jaundiced view of the impact of charters.

First of all, charters are public schools. They are open to all students and are funded with property tax dollars paid by the parents opting to send their kids to charters. Those dollars belong to the students; not the district.

A student sitting at a desk in a charter school is just as entitled to that money as his or her friend opting to go to the traditional public school.

Beyond that, the impact on a district’s budget is relatively miniscule. In most cases, it’s less than 2 or 3 percent.

In fact charter school students receive less money because they get only a portion of the funding behind the student in a traditional public school. And charters get no money for facilities, forcing the educators and parents to find alternative ways for financing those needs.

Being an educator by profession, what’s even more troubling to me than the money is the “us-against-them” mindset that adults are instilling in children.

The opposing camps in the unfolding suburban school battle are teaching a lesson that no child should ever learn.

Clearly that was never the intent of the charter school law. But sadly it may be an aspect of its legacy unless those trying to block charters recognize they’re seeing an enemy where none exists.

Back in 1995, when the state Legislature was considering the charter law, the debate looked to how charters could foster educational innovation and make schools throughout New Jersey better.

No lawmaker wanted the innovation limited to the cities. It shouldn’t be so now.

 JosephV. Doria,Jr. served in the New Jersey General Assembly from 1980 to 2004.  He was Speaker from 1990 to 1992 and Minority Leader from 1992 to 2002. He served in the State Senate from 2004 to 2007 and was Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs from 2007 to 2009. Anti-charter Groups Misinterpret the Legislature’s Intent