Forum Stresses Clearer Laws, More Local Input in Establishing Charter Schools
Save Our Schools NJ, the Education Law Center and Speak Up Highland Park held a panel discussion on charter reform Tuesday night at the Bartle School.
More community input was the recurring theme at a Tuesday panel discussion in Highland Park about charter school reform.
Held at the Bartle School, panelists discussed the problems in existing charter school laws set forth by the state and the legislative solutions that their organizations are trying to get off the ground.
The panel was hosted by the Education Law Center, Save Our Schools NJ and Speak Up Highland Park.
Panel moderator Stan Karp of the Education Law Center said charters are a "growing and contentious issue."
Highland Park and recently, New Brunswick have been the setting for a controversial charter discussion with the application of a Hebrew-language charter high school petitioning to open in New Brunswick. In East Brunswick, residents have spoken for and against the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School.
Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School had submitted three applications to the DOE to open in Highland Park. The application generated a loud outcry from Highland Park and Edison residents who say that a Hebrew-language charter is not needed or wanted in the borough, and would pull needed funds away from the local public schools.
New Brunswick community leaders joined them in the fall of 2011 when the school said it hoped to open in New Brunswick, instead of Highland Park.
None of the school's applications have been approved by the DOE as of yet, and the school did not submit a fifth application in the most recent round of charter applications to the state. However, Tikun Olam's founders have been awarded a $600,000 grant from the federal Department of Education to operate their school, leaving the door open for them to re-apply.
Discussion on Tikun Olam itself was very light. Rather, the panelists focused on statewide and national charter issues and potential problems.
Save Our Schools member Julia Sass Rubin pointed out topics that she said were major issues in charter school approval in New Jersey, the first being that charter approval comes from the Acting Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf, without official public input from the communities in which the schools would be going into.
This method undermines the idea of local democratic control of public education, she said.
Currently, Save Our Schools NJ is campaigning for a bill that would require local approval of charters in NJ.
Additionally, the nonpartisan group is also campaigning for a separate bill that would increase the accountability of charters and force them to address the fact that the demographics of charters very often do not resemble the demographics of their sending districts, Rubin said.
An April 24 editorial by NJ Spotlight addresses this very issue, calling it "Academic cream-skimming" in that evidence is showing that many charters schools enroll low numbers of limited-English, economically disadvantaged and special education students.
The bill addressing this issue would automatically enroll all students in a district with a charter into a lottery, rather than parents having to enter the lottery to get them into the charter, Rubin said.
If the child is picked, the parent would be notified and given the choice of whether they want to send their child to the charter, Rubin said.
This is meant to address economically disadvantaged and non-native English speakers who are less involved in their child's school because of their situation, Rubin said.
Panelist Dallas Dixon, executive director of the Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton said that the 15-year-old charter enrolls 400 kids in grades 5-12, and recently received a letter from Cerf ordering it to close.
Dixon said Emily Fisher works with kids who did not fit into their district schools due to disruptive behavior and learning problems. The major problem the charter now faces is that there are approximately 250 kids in the school currently who will not easily go back to the district schools, he said.
Michelle Fine, author and a professor at the Graduate Center at CUNY said a growing issue with charters in NJ is corporate influence as for-profit companies have taken an interest in the charter movement.
Rubin made a similar point, stating that virtual charters have been taking root in NJ with varied approaches on how to educate their students. Two have been approved to open in September, she said.
Save Our Schools NJ has taken the position of asking the state to place a moratorium on virtual charters until more research can be done on them, Rubin said.