Friday, March 23, 2012

Courier News is Wrong on Voter Approval of Charter Schools

On Monday March 19th the Courier News editorial “Let Voters Decide on Charter Schools” endorsed the current legislation working its way through New Jersey’s Assembly and Senate. The legislation calls for voter approval of all new charter schools being proposed within their school district. I can appreciate the concerns residents may harbor for these schools, but I could not disagree more with the proposed remedy, especially when a much more viable solution exists.

The backlash against charter schools is a relatively recent phenomenon and has been fueled by the sudden interest in opening charter schools in some of our State’s more successful school districts like West Windsor, Princeton, and East Brunswick. These are districts with no real need for reform, and many of these proposed charters- schools I have termed “boutique” charters- are designed to offer “innovations” such as immersion in Mandarin or Hebrew, to cite two examples. They offer “alternatives,” but they do not offer anything that I can see as discernible improvement in the quality of education being provided in the existing public schools. They are a luxury, not a need, and I can understand the public’s discomfort with the disruption these schools can cause and the objection to tax money being redirected to these charters.

The legislation, however, does not limit voter referendum to just these high performing school districts, but to all school districts, including those in communities where the need for innovation and new initiatives to improve the quality of education is immediate and profound. Passage of this legislation threatens efforts  to reform education in our inner cities, and that would be a real tragedy.

Referendums in general are very expensive undertakings to stakeholders with an interest in the outcome, and this will not only draw important financial and human resources into a political contest, but it exposes our real need for reform to the influence of interest groups with a personal stake in the outcome. Moreover, a public referendum demands that the populace be educated and aware of the issues, and I find it highly unlikely that people will take the time to learn the educational philosophy and mission of the proposed charters, and even those that do take the time to gather information probably don’t have the background to fully understand the educational objectives on which these charters are founded. This is an issue best decided by professionals in the field.

In one important respect I totally agree with residents in these high performing suburban districts; charter schools do not belong in their communities. If you read the original legislation, and followed the original debate, it would be clear that the intent of the charter school reform bill was to improve the deplorable state of education in the inner city. The idea was to create schools that would serve as “laboratories,” bringing innovative and original ideas on teaching and learning into our inner cities as a means of improving the quality of education received by all inner city students. It was an initiative rooted in a belief that collaboration, not competition, would help produce fundamental change.

New Jersey’s inner cities NEED charter schools, our suburban communities do not. As an alternative to this legislation, I propose that some legislator propose a bill that simply limits new charter schools to certain geographic areas, rather than place all charter schools to a public vote. This would refocus the charter school movement to those areas where these schools were originally intended, while also leaving approval of these schools in the hands of professionals that are better equipped to assess these proposed schools for their educational validity and potential for success.

The blending of education and politics is messy, complicated, and too prone to influence by people that do not always have the best interest of our children in mind. As charter schools gravitate to our wealthier communities, a backlash was to be expected. To me these “boutique” charters are ego driven initiatives undertaken by individuals with personal agendas that may or may not have the best interest of all New Jersey children in mind. It is a shame that the charter school community doesn’t have a “self-regulating” feature that could have stopped this emerging problem before it took hold. Let’s hope that a better solution can be found. Voter referendum is not the way to go.

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