Assembly Ed Gets History Lesson & Update On Charters

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According to former Assembly Speaker / Senator Joseph Doria – one of the prime architects of the 1995 Charter School Act – the intent of the legislation was for the programs to serve as experimental classrooms, with the staff sharing best practices with traditional public schools.  Each school was, generally speaking, intended to operate as single, community-based school, not as part of a national chain that some large networks of charter schools have become.

“It’s not meant to be a system of schools. It’s meant to be a school, a charter,” Doria said.

Doria’s statements were part of a several hour hearing that focused on history of the charter movement in New Jersey as well as current success and issues with the law and the schools that operate under its authority. Doria, who now sits on the board of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, was one of several speakers invited to provide feedback to the Assembly committee about the history and implementation of charter schools in the state.  Other speakers included David Schiarra of the Education Law Center, Rick Pressler, Director of school services for the New Jersey Charter Schools Association and Wendell Steinhauer, President of the NJEA.

Most of the speakers shared that they supported the original concept of charter schools as innovative laboratories, and, expressed a willingness and interest in collaboration between the traditional and charter school communities.

But when Assembly committee chairwoman Marlene Caride asked Wendell Steinhauer, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, whether there is collaboration currently, he summed up the situation with one word: “No.”

Steinhauer agreed, however, that there should be collaboration, noting that NJEA represents more than 1,000 charter school employees and that the association stands for “high quality public charter schools” that has community involvement.

Like Doria, he warned lawmakers about the emergence of larger charter school systems and said charter schools should be held to the same accountability standards as traditional schools, including teaching certification requirements. The state Board of Education is currently considering a proposal to loosen certain regulations, such as staff certifications, which Steinhauer suggested would lower standards.

“We believe in one educational system, one set of standards,” he said.

Rick Pressler, director of school services for the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, said the volume of families seeking school choice options has fueled the focus on growing charter schools over working with other schools.

“This sense of urgency around opportunity has outstripped the emphasis on collaboration,” he said.

More than 20,000 families are on wait lists to enroll in charter schools in New Jersey, NJCSA representatives said.

While charter school proponents spoke of the need to open more schools, David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, called for a moratorium on charter school expansion in districts where, he said, signs of inequity are showing. Charter schools tend to educate fewer poor students and those learning English than district schools do, and students with the most severe disabilities tend not to be served by charter schools, he said.

The greater concentration of high-needs students in traditional district schools hasn’t helped at a time when districts are losing funding to charter schools, he said.

“In Newark, we now have two separate [education] systems,” Sciarra said.

NJCSA’s incoming chair, Ronald Brady, denied that charter schools poach off the top students.

“It is, frankly, an incredibly offensive piece of rhetoric repeatedly pushed by those who want to destroy opportunity for students in public charter schools,” he said. “In fact, public charters are required by law to seek the enrollment of a cross section of the community’s school age population including racial and academic factors. And we do.”

Assemblyman Troy Singleton, who attended both public and private schools, said he was “disheartened” by some of the rhetoric he heard and spoke of the fact that not every family has the means to move for a preferred educational experience.

“When it’s poor folks, when it’s folks of lesser means, who want to exercise the same choice that any of us have to move to a different town or different community … their opportunity to make that choice comes under the auspices of more inspection and interrogation,” he said.

Speakers and committee members on Monday also focused on the need to address school funding for charter schools and for the state Department of Education to conduct a study evaluating the charter school system.

Caride noted that the acting commissioner of education, Kimberley Harrington, was invited to speak this week but declined.

Source: Politico Pro