On charter schools, Newark is no Detroit | Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on July 05, 2016

Charter schools have shown great results in cities like Newark, but they are a useful tool — not a magic wand.
 
The freedom from regulations allows innovation. And many of the urban pioneers running these schools are fired up. Charters that capture that can do astonishing well.
 
But the structure hardly guarantees a top-notch, independently-run public school. You can't just approve new charters, leave the house and expect them to thrive.

For a cautionary tale, look at Detroit. Charters there have been recklessly expanded to the point that a crush of mediocre schools now desperately compete for students and the public dollars that follow them.
 
Their rush to get kids to show up on "count day," when the state decides how much money to send to each school, is like something out of Trump University: Poor kids are offered cash bonuses, laptops, or a chance to win an iPad or a bicycle, the New York Times reports. Gross.
 
When Newark parents lined up thousands deep on waiting lists for charter schools, it wasn't for a free iPad; it was because they solidly outperform district schools, in some cases by a huge margin.
 
It all comes down to quality control. The key is who gets to start a charter, and how quickly a bad one gets shut down. Thankfully, unlike Michigan, New Jersey doesn't allow a huge number of outside institutions to approve new charter schools, or give them financial incentives to do so. It doesn't give outside groups the sole power to down shut bad charters.

Here, only the state can approve or shut down a charter school. There are downsides to this approach: A pro-charter governor could approve too many, as Gov. Christie probably did when he first took office, or an anti-charter one could kill the growth of even top-performing charters.
 
The ideal is to find a middle ground, in which the state and perhaps a reputable university or two shares the responsibility. In the meantime, though, New Jersey has tightened its oversight under Christie. His subsequent education chief, Christopher Cerf, shut down 10 percent of our state's charters, thanks to more rigorous accountability standards.
 
The state rebuilt its approval process, too, making it much harder for new charters to be granted. In 2011, just 12 of 100 charter applicants were approved. The following year, out of 40 applications, Cerf chose only the four most promising.
 
The number of new charters approved, compared to the number of applications, has continued to be remarkably low. The state approved just three in February, but expanded 16 existing charters, including proven brands like Newark's top-performers North Star and KIPP.
 
The focus has been on replicating success. That's as it should be. Yet because these good practices aren't enshrined into law, all the progress we've made could disappear with the next governor. We need to fix that, to ensure bad charters continue to be closed, good ones are expanded, and weak applications don't slip through.

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