Charter schools play an important role in our efforts to reform education in New Jersey and improve the culture of learning in our inner city schools. But recently I have noticed an apparent backlash against these schools, as evidenced in the bill working its way through our legislature, a bill that would require all future charter schools be approved by a public vote. This bill MUST be defeated; its passage could be the death knell for the charter school movement.
The genesis of this proposed legislation is the proliferation of so-called “boutique” charter schools. The term refers to charter schools that are seeking approval in high performing school districts like West Windsor-Plainsboro, Montgomery, Princeton, and Cherry Hill. The proposed charter in the West Windsor-Plainsboro area, for example, would be a Mandarin immersion school, this in spite of the fact that the school district has an incredibly excellent Chinese language program.
Charter schools should NEVER have been approved anywhere but the districts most in need of reform, districts like Camden, Newark, and Trenton. By approving these boutique schools, the DOE has deviated from the intent and mission of the original charter legislation. By promulgating charters in high performing and highly taxed school districts it has created what many of these families see as a threat to the quality of their schools and a disruption of the status quo.
The controversy and debate we are seeing today is directly related to the perversion of the relationship that should exist between public and charter schools. The problem can be traced back to those in the education reform movement that promoted charter schools as competition to public schools, advancing the mistaken belief that competition is the key to improving the quality and performance of our inner city public schools.
For reasons I’ll address in a future post, true competition, even if it could exist, is not the answer. The point I want to make is that nowhere in the original charter school legislation was there ever a hint that competition was the bill’s intent. The purpose of charter schools is to experiment with innovative ideas that either could not be or simply were not being implemented in our failing schools. It seems clear to me that the purpose was to demonstrate what works and then share that knowledge with the public schools. The relationship was meant to be collegial, not adversarial.
If the charter school movement is to stay vibrant and relevant, it is incumbent on the DOE to publicly declare that it will only approve charter schools located in “failing” school districts. Put an end to these boutique charter schools and restore the focus to our inner cities. At the same time, find a way to facilitate communication between charter schools and public schools in these cities.