Senate Ed Committee Hears from Parents & Ed Stakeholders on Enhanced Accountability & Public Authorization for Charter Schools in NJ
The Senate Education Committee held a hearing October 13 on several pieces of legislation which seek to require voter approval for newly proposed or proposed expansion of charter schools (S2243 / A3852); and increase charter school accountability and operational transparency (S3001 / A3356 & S1594). NJPSA testified in support of several of the measures, seeking technical amendments should the bills move forward.
The hearing came as vocal opposition to charter schools -- or at least the law that authorizes them -- has been fomenting in suburban districts in particular. Action by suburban parents has even led to legal appeal and formal letters of objection filed with the state Department of Education as part of the charter application process.
A New Focus on Quality by the DOE
Several staff of the Department of Education, including Deputy Commissioner Andy Smarick and Legislative Liaison Chris Emigholz of the Education Department focused on changes at the Department that seek to put a greater focus on quality through: a review of output measures including test scores; a new focus on equality of access for all students; changes to the existing charter school renewal process and changes to ongoing oversight processes for charters (Acting Commissioner Details New Rules for Charter Schools, September 14, 2011).
Citing recent alignment with New Jersey’s selection process and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) best practices, the two indicated that future charter applicants will be reviewed based upon clear benchmarks around predictors for school success, a research-based academic program, experienced school operators, high expectations for all students, a well rounded board of trustees and a strong capacity to implement the goals.
The Department, through its Charter Schools Office, will ensure that each school meets and implements their performance standards through monitoring. Additionally, the NJDOE is working to identify successful and replicable models and operators from around the country and encouraging these operators to apply.
In addition, the charter school renewal process, which will directly impact 20 existing charters currently at the end of their five year term, now has a core focus on academic achievement for its students similar to traditional public schools. During the renewal process, the NJDOE will focus on three core components, demonstrated student achievement, fiscal and organizational viability, and capacity of school leadership and the board of trustees to sustain that progress in the next charter term. In evaluating student achievement, the NJDOE will examine “trend lines” of a school’s performance, including:
Proficiency rates on state-wide assessments
Mean scale score on state-wide assessments
School-wide growth over time on state-wide assessments
Comparisons to the state average
Comparisons to the charter school’s host district
Comparison to demographically similar charter and traditional schools
Student retention rates, and
Student progress as measured using student growth percentiles (SGP), once that data is available (next year).
Another key area for state focus will be the charter school’s recruitment and enrollment processes, including a review of the school’s efforts to actively recruit high need students. The new requirement is in response to assertions that charters are not open and accessible to all students, particularly those with disabilities.
Monitoring and Oversight
Despite evidence of staff capacity at the NJDOE and the Charter Schools’ Office in the recent past, both staff members argued that capacity issues have been rectified. Smarick focused on the new “comprehensive accountability framework to guide all charter schools” which includes new charter school agreements with each school and more frequent evaluations during the charter term.
The legislation heard at the October 13 meeting goes further that what the Department has committed to, however.
A Public Vote
The first piece of legislation, Senate bill S-2243 / A-3852 (Turner / Buono / Greenstein / Diegnan / Barnes / Wisniewski) would require charter schools to obtain voter approval before establishment.
As the number of charter schools increases in New Jersey — there are over 90 operating currently, with 23 more approved and another 42 proposed - push back, particularly in suburban communities who has revolved around the school’s being viewed as “boutiques” . The vote is seen as a way to ensure a community is onboard with a proposed charter before it opens.
But charter proponents have serious concerns with the bill since they view it as a way to stop growth of charters in New Jersey.
Local school districts provide the funding for charter schools that educate their communities’ students, paying 90 percent of the per-pupil cost. But, unlike the general school budget, where community members can express their support or dissatisfaction with how public dollars are being spent, they do not have a say in the financial impact the establishment of charter school in their community may have on district resources. This bill would allow them that say, as part of the consideration the Commissioner must consider in granting a charter.
NJPSA testified in support of this legislation and argued that public input was essential – regardless of whether it came in the form of a vote or public hearings. View NJPSA’s testimony.
Enhanced Accountability for Charter Schools
The other legislation heard at the October 13 focuses on enhanced accountability for charter schools. With the initial charter legislation over fifteen (15) years old, S-3001 / A-3356 (Ruiz / Coutinho / Jasey), would establish additional performance and accountability measures for charter schools by:
incorporating charter schools within the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC);
enhancing student enrollment reporting requirements;
ensuring that expelled students are assisted in their transition into another educational environment; and
ensuring public access to information on a public charter school
The legislation would also require that ALL students in a charter school’s district be put into a lottery for attendance, and parents be required to "OPT OUT" if they want. Currently, parents have to request to have their child’s name included in a charter school lottery.
The legislation additionally seeks to address the funding disparity issue that has arisen in recent years, due to non-passage of local school budgets, so as not to inordinately disadvantage students remaining in the traditional public school when a general fund tax levy of a proposed budget is rejected and subsequently cut by a municipal body by resetting the per pupil amount in such instances.
NJPSA generally supports this legislation but raised some concerns about the “opt out” process. View NJPSA’s testimony.
An additional bill, S-1594 (Rice / Turner) would require charter applicants to receive a certificate of occupancy prior to submitting an application for enrollment. NJPSA raised some concerns about this process indicating that it might be more appropriate to make this an affirmative requirement of the final approval process which allows a charter to become effective. View NJPSA’s testimony.
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