School-year kickoff letter to charters from DOE: ‘We take the exchange of autonomy for accountability very seriously’

TRENTON – Acting Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf sent a year-opening letter to charter schools across New Jersey, which stressed a renewed accountability level expected by the state.

“The promise of charter schools is that they will offer parents another high-quality public school alternative, especially for children whose needs are not being successfully met elsewhere,” Cerf wrote in a letter posted on the department website. He called the charters “(e)very bit as ‘public’ as traditional schools managed by local districts,” and said they are granted additional “autonomy to innovate.”

“In exchange, the Department of Education must set a high bar for accountability and ensure that these schools are fulfilling their promise of improving student achievement and serving all students,” Cerf wrote.

“On the whole, charter schools in New Jersey are achieving at high levels…However, not all charter schools are serving students at the levels they deserve. At the Department, we take the exchange of autonomy for accountability very seriously.

“Over the last several months, we have made increasing the number of students in high-quality charter schools a top priority. Under the leadership of the new director of our Charter Schools Office, Carly Bolger, we have completely revamped the new school selection process, the charter renewal process, and the ongoing oversight framework. This year, we closed two charter schools that were not getting the job done for students.”

Overall, Cerf praised charter schools: “In a presentation to the State Board of Education earlier this year, we shared results from the 2009-10 school year which showed not only that charter schools are outperforming districts in the aggregate in cities like Newark, Camden, and Jersey City, but that charter schools in those districts are performing higher when students are broken out by grade level and both socioeconomic status and race. Preliminary results from the 2010-11 school year show continued growth in student achievement for charter schools overall.”

He said the state is stepping up guidance in some areas, such as student applications and enrollment, to ensure compliance and to “fulfill the spirit of equal access for all students, regardless of background.”

He laid out some of the new procedures and other changes to administration of charter schools, like the state’s new school selection process.

“This year, the Charter Schools Office aligned their selection process to best practices identified by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA),” Cerf wrote. “This included setting clear benchmarks around predictors of school success including a research-based academic program with a proven history, experienced school operators, high expectations for all students, a well rounded board of trustees, and a strong capacity to implement the program. These components, along with a number of others, were reviewed through a several stage process including an intensive interview with the evaluation committee.”

He said the state is dedicating additional resources to “identify successful and replicable models and operators (of charter schools) from around the country and encouraging them to apply (to open schools in New Jersey).”

For the renewal process, Cerf said the state is “focused predominantly” on academic achievement. “We have also greatly increased the transparency of this process by providing all applicants clear criteria by which they will be evaluated,” he said.

“During the renewal process, the Department will focus on three main areas: demonstrated student achievement, fiscal and organizational viability, and capacity of school leadership and the board of trustees to sustain that progress in the coming charter term.”

DOE will examine “trend lines” of school performance, including proficiency rates, mean scale score, and school-wide growth over time on statewide assessments; comparisons to the state average, to the charter school’s host district, and to demographically similar charter and traditional schools; graduation/drop-out and student retention rates; and student progress as measured using student growth percentiles.

In the area of accountability, the state is implementing a “comprehensive accountability framework,” including more frequent evaluations. DOE’s Charter Schools Office will also be entering into new charter agreements with all new approved applicants and successful renewal schools which “set forth common terms and conditions for operating charter schools in New Jersey and will contain school-specific accountability plans for achievement.” Cerf said these new contracts “will ultimately serve as the basis for charter renewals.”

Previous coverage:

Christie adds 23 new charter schools

Planned Princeton-area charter school sues 3 districts

School-year kickoff letter to charters from DOE: ‘We take the exchange of autonomy for accountability very seriously’