Revamped charter school law, not moratorium, will benefit N.J. students | Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
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on September 05, 2015

First grade student Riley Ledbetter talks during a class at Seek Academy, a highly successful charter school run by TEAM Academy in Newark Thursday, January, 22, 2015

 

By Ron Rice Jr.

Something strange is happening at the state capitol. In spite of the bona fide track record public charter schools have established in New Jersey, two separate bills have been introduced in the state Senate and the Assembly that would impose a moratorium on expanding their enrollment. The sponsors of each bill are experienced politicians with a great deal of savvy and very little taste for quixotic missions, so these moves seem suspicious.

We then have leaders who are railing against the proliferation of charter schools as if anyone who merely applies just gets a charter without any state oversight, review or even the most basic features of accountability. They simply call for "slowing down" the entire process.

Slowing down the expansion of high-quality public charter schools for the 20,000 students currently on a wait list to attend one of those schools? Half of those students are concentrated in Newark. In fact, New Jersey has slowed down the approval process of charter schools over the past few years much to the chagrin of those families.

Proliferation? Out of the 2,505 public schools in the state, only 92 are charter schools and they serve 49,000 students out of 1.37 million enrolled in a public school.

Given the success public charter schools have had in boosting achievement in areas where traditional public schools have failed, the rationale for such a drastic approach as a moratorium is tremendously flawed.

The truth is that a conversation has been going on about charter schools in New Jersey and across the country for more than 20 years. Maybe some just don't like what they hear, but the truth is that charter schools have a track record of being an effective educational delivery system for thousands of students, particularly those from low-income, minority communities.

If 20,000 in waiting isn't convincing, the data is. According to a 2015 study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Newark charter schools outperformed their district counterparts at high levels. A mere three years ago, this same Stanford research center found that charter schools were underperforming, so a lot of progress has happened in a short period of time for students. Charter schools' growth should be supported not "slowed down."

I do agree, however, that we need to refresh the charter school conversation. It is long past time to update New Jersey's public charter school law. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranks New Jersey's law No. 32 out of the 43 states that have passed public charter school laws. It includes only a single authorizing path, offers insufficient autonomy and provides inequitable funding to charter schools.

Yet with a better public charter school law in place—one that is more focused on what's best for kids— charters could serve up to three times the number of children they currently do. New Jersey needs a law that increases opportunities for parents wishing to send their children to charter schools, not one that restricts them.

New Jersey can't afford to fall behind with respect to innovation in education. Other areas like Chicago, Detroit and New York are expanding their enrollment, and there are over one million students nationwide on a wait list to attend a charter school. Americans strongly support charter schools—a national PDK/Gallup poll taken last year shows that 70 percent support public charter schools.

Parents are sending a clear message. They don't want a moratorium; they don't want to slow down. They want more high-quality public school options for their children and our leaders should give tax-paying parents what they want, demand and need.

Ron Rice Jr. is the senior director of government relations for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and previously served as the special assistant/chief policy analyst for the chief of staff to the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education and as a city councilman for two terms in Newark where he created his ward's Education Support Committee.

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