NJEA Testimony on Public Charter Schools

Presented by NJEA Lobbyist Sean Hadley to the NJ State Board of Education
June 6, 2012

NJEA has long supported high-quality, accountable public charter schools as one part of New Jersey’s public education system.  When designed and run correctly, charter schools can serve as laboratories of innovation.  To be effective, though, charter schools need accountability to the state, to their community, and to the students and families that they serve.

Unfortunately, the proposal before the State Board of Education moves New Jersey’s charter schools in the opposite direction—toward less accountability and less quality assurance.  That would be disastrous for our communities, schools, and students.

Across the nation, charter schools have, at best, a mixed record of achievement.  While there are great success stories, too many others fail to achieve at the same level as equivalent district-run schools.  Many perform worse.  This is true of charter schools in New Jersey. 

As the State Board considers these regulations governing charter schools, NJEA urges you to look for ways to improve accountability, not to open loopholes for ineffective or unscrupulous operators to flood the state with poorly-performing, but slickly marketed, charter schools.

VIRTUAL CHARTER SCHOOLS

In particular, we oppose opening the floodgates to unchecked proliferation of so-called virtual charter schools.  These untested, unproven and loosely regulated businesses would drain resources from local districts to enroll students from across the state.  What’s more, there is no evidence that virtual charter schools would provide a high-quality comprehensive education, but the proposed regulations would allow them to set up shop and charge local districts for the cost of educating students from a “region of residence” potentially as large as the entire state.

This is a complex issue that the Legislature never contemplated when approving the charter school law in 1996.  Issues of quality, accountability and funding of virtual schools are unaddressed in the charter school law and it is inappropriate to engage in an experiment with questionable academic benefit.  Virtual schools are vastly different from brick-and-mortar charter schools and bring unique problems that must be resolved before their proliferation in New Jersey.  Allow me to outline a few of the educational concerns with virtual charter schools:

1)      Lack of accountability and quality control—By their very nature, virtual schools lack the in-class monitoring and other tools to ensure that state assessments are completed solely by the student.  How do you know if someone is cheating?  If not physically in the room, there is no way to proctor exams.  Furthermore, there is no guarantee that instruction is provided by certified staff.

2)      Lack of social interaction—NJEA does not believe that a “virtual” online experience provides the same social development as attending a brick-and-mortar institution.  These skills of dealing with classmates, interacting with teachers and others in authority, are essential proficiencies that benefit children throughout their lives and careers.

3)      Special education issues—It is unclear how these schools would address students with special needs, or even if they intend to address the needs of these students.

4)      Fiscal Accountability— Finally, there are unanswered questions about the appropriate funding for these schools.  The original charter school law provides a funding mechanism designed for brick and mortar schools located in a school district, not a virtual school that operates statewide.

These are just a handful of the many unaddressed problems with virtual schools.  Put simply, whether virtual schools should be created in New Jersey—and the specific requirements for such schools—are significant policy issues to be addressed by the Legislature in the first instance.  Absent such authorizing legislation, there is no basis in the charter school law to move forward with regulations allowing virtual charter schools in New Jersey.

NON-UNIFORM ARBITRARY TENURE PROCEDURES

Right now, there is a wide debate in the Legislature to reform tenure.  As part of this conversation, NJEA has presented proposals to streamline the process, allow for greater mentoring and meaningful evaluation, and use a more efficient, less costly, arbitration process for tenure dismissal—a process similar to that now proposed for elimination in the charter school regulations.  NJEA opposes addressing tenure in the charter school regulations while a comprehensive statewide examination of the issue is underway. 

Furthermore, the tenure proposal itself, as noted under “Agency Initiated Changes” (page 4 of the Comment/Response Form), would create an inefficient and arbitrary patchwork of tenure systems across the state.  NJEA believes that employees deserve uniform state standards for tenure acquisition and dismissal, not standards based upon the whim and caprice of an individual charter school.  Under this proposal, any employee in those schools would unfairly face subjective standards, promulgated by the charter school itself, to guide critical employment decisions.  This is at odds with the efficient, fair, and uniform tenure process NJEA is working to create throughout the state.

EDUCATOR EVALUATION SYSTEM

The newly proposed "educator evaluation system" criterion for the renewal of charters is premature and unnecessary.  This loosely-defined proposal fails to acknowledge that the Department is currently piloting an educator evaluation system and gathering important data about its implementation.  It would be inappropriate to mandate an as-yet-undefined evaluation system before the results of this pilot have been carefully scrutinized for its academic outcomes. 

LACK OF LOCAL INPUT

We are also concerned with proposed changes that would deny local communities any say over the charter schools aiming to open there.  Charter schools in New Jersey are intended, in part, to provide parents and local communities an opportunity to try new and innovative programs they believe will benefit the community’s children.  Under the proposal for these so-called satellite campuses, local parents and educational leaders would not have any say over who opens a school in their community. 

Instead, under the proposed regulations, there is no decision-making authority for local communities.  Charter school operators would not need any connection to the communities and the public school systems in which they operate.   Existing charter schools, at the discretion of the Commissioner, could open satellite campuses in other districts across the state, regardless of whether the operators have any connection to or experience with those communities. 

FOR-PROFIT OPERATIONS

Finally, NJEA is very concerned about throwing open the doors to outside, for-profit charter school operators and management organizations.  Introducing a profit motive into school management sets up a fight for limited resources between students who need resources and corporate operators who need to maximize earnings.  New Jersey’s original charter school law recognized this inherent conflict and forbid Boards of Trustees from operating charter schools at a profit.  The proposal for “restructured renewal” fails to be cognizant of this restriction and wrongfully leaves open the opportunity for profiteering.

CONCLUSION

NJEA urges you to act in the spirit of New Jersey’s original charter school law, which intended for charter schools to serve an important, but limited, purpose as laboratories for innovation, working alongside and cooperatively with traditional public schools.  Please reject changes to the charter school regulations that make our schools less accountable, less effective, and less responsive to the needs of the communities and the students they serve.