Gov. Chris Christie and his powerful Democratic allies–most notably US Sen. Cory Booker and South Jersey political boss George Norcross–promote charter and voucher schools as a way of avoiding the two most pressing problems facing urban public education: Chronic underfunding of the state school aid formula and oppressive racial isolation. By favoring charter schools that can help a few students, Christie, Booker, and Norcross never have to face the problem of providing all children with the constitutionally required level of schooling that is their birthright.
Charter schools are politically powerful and receive enormous amounts of private funding from both Democratic and Republican sources. Because of that political support, they have been able to avoid the kind of intense regulatory scrutiny that in imposed on public schools, especially in places like Newark and other state-controlled districts. They also receive preferential funding, including a shameful diversion of an additional $37 million in public school funding diverted to charter schools this year alone.
Christie and Booker want to make Newark the charter capital of the nation. Recently, in a deal with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the Republican governor agreed to remove the much-despised Newark superintendent, Cami Anderson, and replace her with former state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, a nationally-recognized champion of charter schools. Baraka has said he accepted to this “settlement” because Christie promised to bring local control to Newark after 20 years of state mismanagement. The nature of that return to local control, h0wever, depends on a 9-member committee, headed by Cerf, that is dominated by pro-charter Christie allies. The agreement raises the question whether, in return for local control, Newark will become what Christie and Booker want–a charter school district.
On Monday, a subcommittee of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, held a hearing on whether charter schools should be held to the same level of accountability as public schools. Charter school proponent–backed by the state–are resisting a proposal to require charters to under the same QSAC evaluation as public schools. The failure of charters to abide by QSAC is a measure of the political clout the privately-operated but publicly-funded schools have in the Legislature. When he was tte education commissioner, Cerf changed the QSAC standards to prevent Newark from obtaining local control.
This site asked Melissa Katz, a student at The College of New Jersey and well-known pro-public school activist, to cover the subcommittee hearing for Bob Braun’s Ledger. Her comprehensive report follows:
By MELISSA KATZ
The Innovative Practices Subcommittee of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools met to hear testimony on how charter schools report their data. The subcommittee began a discussion of requiring privately operated but public funded charter schools to comply with the so-called QSAC requirement, the standards that must be met by public schools. The Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) is defined by the New Jersey Department of Education as their “monitoring and evaluation system for public school districts.”
Background on QSAC
QSAC, according to the state, is a “single comprehensive accountability system that consolidates and incorporates the monitoring requirements of applicable state laws and programs and complements federally required improvements. The system focuses on monitoring and evaluating school districts in five key components that, based on research, have been identified to be key factors in effective school districts.” QSAC reviews occur every three years and the five key components evaluated are as follows: instruction and program; fiscal management; governance; personnel; and operations.
The discussion before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools was about potentially including charter schools under QSAC regulations. Currently, charter schools are evaluated under the Charter Performance Framework, conducted annually, which, according to the New Jersey Department of Education, “sets clear expectations for schools and will allow the DOE to answer the following questions: Is the academic program a success? Is the school financially viable? Is the school equitable and organizationally sound?” Within this performance framework, the three areas of evaluation are academic performance, fiscal performance, and organizational performance. The academic section of review carries the most weight when it comes to high-stakes decisions regarding the charter school, such as expansion, renewal, or revocation.
The state description continues: “In addition, the Framework will allow schools to now be assessed in a number of areas, such as how the school compares to similar “peer” schools; progress of individual subgroups of students and the school as a whole over time; whether the school is financially healthy and sustainable; whether the school has equitable admissions and enrollment practices to serve all students; and whether the school offers a safe and structured learning environment.”
Testimony Presented to the Joint Committee
A spokesman for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA) spoke in favor of “leveling the playing field” by having traditional public schools and charter schools held to the same accountability measure. Patrick Fletcher, the River Dell Regional Superintendent and NJASA president stated that QSAC has improved since it was first introduced. QSAC, he said, provides a continuous bank of publicly available data evidence on district performance. According to NJASA, differentiating the way school districts and charters are evaluated creates an unlevel playing field. One of the most important aspects of the process is transparency, which allows other practitioners to keep an eye on what is going on in a school district.
Next to testify were representatives from the state education department, mostly offered by Harry Lee, director of the Charter School Office. Before he began, state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), chairman of the joint committee, asked whether Lee was in any way connected with the Broad Academy or the Aspen Institute. Lee denied he was. Rice has been concerned in the past because estate officials trained by the Broad Academy and the Aspen Institute–including Cerf, Anderson, and Peter Shulman, a deputy commissioner and interim Newark superintendent–have promoted school privatization as an answer to the problems of urban schools.
The department prepared a presentation, but it was not made available to the public (the legislators asked that it be made available). The presentation started with an overview of the role and mission of the department, which is to ensure that all students, regardless of zip code, graduate ready for college and career. Lee noted:
- As of the 2015-2016 school year, there will be 89 charters serving 40,000 students in the state of New Jersey. Later on, it was clarified that 89 charters is the number of charters currently operating, not necessarily the number of physical school buildings that exist. For example, TEAM charter school is counted as 1 of the 89, despite having more than a dozen locations and schools under the larger charter umbrella. They are considered “satellite” campuses.
Over the last few years, 15 charter schools have opened, 11 have been closed, and 28 have been placed on probation for academic, fiscal, or operational reasons.
- Charter schools have to apply to the department, and the application process has been described as “rigorous.” The schools that get initial application approval go through a preparedness process to gage their capacity and readiness to open. Once schools are in operation, they are monitored on an annual basis and the department takes action when necessary (expansion, closure, etc.), all which is guided by the performance framework.
- Charter schools have much more autonomy than traditional public schools, but in exchange they have much greater accountability; charter schools run on contracts with the Department of Education, so because the DOE has different relationships with traditional public schools, the accountability measures are different (QSAC vs. the performance framework).
- There is a lot of data collected on charter schools each year, including information through NJSMART and an online software system; 15-22 schools are reviewed each year.
- Organizational and leadership capacity are issues for charter schools.
- Rice pushed back, saying, “The measures are different because you’re making the measures different.”
- There is no minimum requirement for the number of parents on a charter school board, and there is no maximum number of times that a person/group can apply to open a charter school.
- The Department of Education continually repeated that they believe charters should serve all students, but pointed out that what they should be doing doesn’t necessarily mean it is what they are doing – he also questioned whether programs and curriculum are in place to support all students, i.e. special education, English Language Learners (ELL), low-income, etc., or if students are being sent back to traditional schools. He asked that the DOE send a complete list with every charter school that offers services and what those services are to the Joint Committee: what kind of services/programs do they offer and what personnel do they have to deliver these services.
- Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Hunterdon) questioned the statistics presented, noting that over the past few years 11 charters have been closed and 28 placed on probation, which is a large percentage of the 89 total (again charters, not actual school buildings) as of September 2015. The DOE responded that most were closed due to organizational and leadership accountability issues, but they have increased rigor in their process, and using the framework developed in 2012 they have a better and stronger application and review process than before.
Next to testify was Amanda Vega, communications manager for the New Jersey Charter School Association (NJCSA). In her view, because charters are subject to greater oversight and accountability, QSAC is duplicative and will water down the accountability measures that are already in place. The framework has been set with very high standards, and outcomes focus on putting students first.
“The last thing charters need is more regulatory oversight,” Vega said.
Susan Cauldwell, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools New Jersey, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization of more than 28,000 parents and other concerned residents who support public education, testified that that all publicly-funded schools should be held to maximum accountability and transparency standards, and that charter and district public schools should be held to the same high standards of accountability and transparency. Some highlights of her testimony:
- QSAC reviews occur every three years and encompass the following five areas: instruction and program; fiscal management; governance; personnel; and operations. By contrast, the Charter Performance Framework is conducted annually and encompasses just three areas: academic performance; financial performance; and organizational performance.
- The components of the areas evaluated differ for charter and district public schools.
- School districts and charter schools are scored differently in their evaluations.
- QSAC results are reviewed and approved by the State BOE at their regular monthly meetings. The same is not true for charter schools. (For maximum public transparency, they believe that the results of annual charter school performance evaluations should be put on State BOE meeting agendas for review and discussion).
You can read the full testimony here: https://www.facebook.com/SaveOurSchoolsNJ/posts/997140020319158
After Save Our Schools testified, Simon asked state and charter school representatives to respond to the testimony., particularly to a contention that the state does not look at charter school curriculum. Cauldwell had said, the state ” does not even look at curriculum for charter schools. Instead, the evaluation of charter school academic performance is based solely on student test scores. There is no justification for the State not to monitor the curriculum utilized by charter schools.”
The response from the DOE was that charters do look at curriculum in the renewal process to make sure that it is aligned to the Core Curriculum Content Standards.
Vega then jumped in, adding that while she did not have the information directly in front of her, the organization would provide answers to any questions that the Joint Committee had in regards to matter of accountability and review of charter schools.
Susan Cauldwell of SOSNJ then responded, saying that she had carefully examined the charter performance framework, which can easily be found online, and pointed out that the academic achievement indicators and measures all focused on test scores. She continued with questioning that if they do look at curriculum upon renewal, this only happens every five years. They would like the evaluation processes to be more aligned so better comparisons could be made. While QSAC includes a portion that looks at test scores, she continued, there is also another section that looks at curriculum and instruction, and whether or not all students are being served.
Simon asked if there were available statistics to support Cauldwell’s statement that children with special needs, students who are ELL’s and students living in poverty are not being served equally through favoritism to certain groups, looking for data that would indicate charters are serving fewer students with special needs. She asked, “Are you filtering out certain students?”
Lee denied favoritism was happening.
Cauldwell then cited a demographic study that SOSNJ did using statistics on the Department of Education website, which concluded that the population that charter schools serve is not reflective in any way of the district the students come from. She continued with findings from the study: there are fewer low income students, fewer special needs students, and students with less severe disabilities in the charter schools vs. traditional public schools. She also noted that the achievement levels of students vary depending on socioeconomic status.
Vega then questioned where Save Our Schools New Jersey got their data, stating, “I’m just making an assumption that it is from NJSMART.” She went on to state that they are working with districts to make sure data is accurately put into NJSMART, and this accuracy could have impacted the results of the study. You can see the full report here, which shows that the data is from the Department of Education website. http://www.saveourschoolsnj.org/save/corefiles/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NJ-Charter-School-Report_10.29.2014.pdf
Cauldwell responded one last time, stating very clearly that SOSNJ was in no way filtering data, and restating that all of the data used in their report was compiled from the Department of Education website.
Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) commented on the exchange:
“I know, based on my experience, my participation, and my ongoing participation in schools within my legislative district… the difficulty that exists in the largest school district in my legislative district, which is a former Abbott, there is no way that if some of the students in that district were sent to and enrolled in charter schools, that charters could handle it.
“Every day I am in the company of educators in my community who deal with every single day like they’re going into a combat zone: they deal with profanity thrown at them, they deal with desks thrown at them, they deal with parents that come in that are… very challenging to them.
“You cannot tell me that there is a charter school in this state that would accept, enroll, and work with children that come from families of that profile. We know, despite all the flowery things we hear about open enrollment, equal access to opportunity for enrollment, ‘we accept everyone;’ I challenge any charter school operator in the state of New Jersey to come with me and tell me that they could handle some of the difficult students that exist in some of these populations. No way, Jose.
“You have half the Teach For America teachers running out the door to those charter schools if they dealt with some of those children the districts deal with. It is insanity, and you know what? They can physically confront an employee,
“I think it’s time we talk about transparency and accountability and it’s high time that we get honest – I don’t want to hear the rhetoric about the zip codes you live in, I don’t want to hear the rhetoric about the teachers that are lazy and not doing anything. We have some significant problems amongst poor children, and I heard the representative from SOSNJ say that there are things, that there is the ability right now, of our DOE to want to turn their head away from the concept away from happens when you’re poor. We have students that live in foster care, I see students who live in 10 different neighborhoods over a 4 year period, it has a deleterious effect on education and their achievement.
“I often say for those of us who are real education advocates, we are ready to partner with anyone in this state in education when you are ready to come to the table and talk about the unequal economic systems that exists. Until we deal with what poverty breeds, or affordable, sustainable housing, until we talk about unemployment in these communities, the child I am describing…. you can develop every fancy standard of evaluation you want, that child is not going to be an achieving student until you make social and economic development in these communities. So let us stop the blame game, I don’t care, go develop every tool you want over at the office of charter schools, when you start addressing some of the ancillary issues that exist in these communities, we can honestly lock arms together, jump off a cliff together ,and improve education in this state.”
Representatives of the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Education Association both spoke briefly, sharing the belief that traditional public schools and charter schools should follow the same methods for accountability.
The full audio of the testimony will likely be archived on the legislature’s website.
Melissa Katz is a junior at The College of New Jersey in the Integrated Bachelor’s and Master of Arts in Teaching in Urban Elementary Education program with a double major in Women’s and Gender Studies. She isa vol unteer organizer with SOS-NJ but did not participate in the preparation or delivery of of that group’s testimony.