|3-5-12 Education in the News, plus FYI - Tenure Hearing on S1455 Ruiz today in Trenton|
Tenure Reform hearing today in Senate Education Committee-Mayors Booker of Newark and Redd of Camden to testify, among many others (including GSCS with 'concerns')
NJ Spotlight - Fine Print: Charters Not Renewed…Cerf points to low test scores, standards in decision to close schools in Trenton, Pleasantville
NJ Spotlight - NJ School Board Elections? These Holdouts Are Sticking With Spring…Roughly 10 percent of school districts across the state have not moved elections into November
What happened: The state announced Friday that it would renew the charters of 16 charter schools, but not the charters of one school in Trenton and another in Pleasantville. The letters sent to the two schools laid out a myriad of problems at each school, two of the oldest in the state.
What it means: The Christie administration has gone out of its way to show how tough it can be on charter schools that aren’t performing. It has been a sensitive topic, as the administration has been a big cheerleader for the alternative schools since Gov. Chris Christie took office and angered communities where the schools are seen as a financial drain. But in this climate, the closing of the two schools also raised worries over how the state was making its decisions.
The reasoning: Acting education commissioner Chris Cerf has pressed hard that charter schools need to meet the state’s standards -- mostly in student test scores and progress -- to maintain their charters, which are up for renewal every five years. “We can and must continue to be impatient and hold all schools to account for results,” Cerf said in the announcement.
Who went wrong: The two schools seeing their charters not renewed are Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton and PleasanTech Academy Charter School in Pleasantville. They have until the end of the school year, and the decisions are open to appeal.
What went wrong, Pleasantville: At PleasanTech, a school founded in 1998 to be a laboratory for education technology, just a third of the students passed state tests. “The charter includes a number of ways to track and measure academic achievement; however, the school has not provided evidence of success,” Cerf wrote to the school. But it wasn’t just that, as Cerf cited high turnover of administrators and substandard buildings, among other factors.
What went wrong, Trenton: Cerf said the Trenton charter school, also founded in 1998, had shown a “culture of low expectations. “ With just a third of the students passing state tests, it is among the lowest 3 percent in performance in the state, according to Cerf. He added: “It was noted during classroom observations that few students were present, that classrooms were chaotic, and that there was little learning taking place.”
What happens next: The schools can appeal through the administrative law process, but odds are long. Otherwise they have been ordered to begin preparations for moving the students to other schools next year.
Praise, but . . . The state’s charter school association commended the state for holding schools to “rigorous quality standards” and said “those standards should be based on comprehensive data on student achievement and growth.” But in a statement from its director, Carlos Perez, the association also worried about overreliance on test scores. “It is essential that the Department of Education give weight to the unique missions of charter schools as they make their renewal decisions.”
Not to mention the impact on kids: A grassroots group that has been critical of the administration’s charter school policies also worried to how it would disrupt the students. Closing a school is incredibly disruptive, particularly for children whose outside lives also lack stability,” said Julia Sass Rubin of Save our Schools NJ. “These closings will have consequences for the host districts as well, yet the DOE makes the decisions unilaterally, as they do with new charter school approvals.”
They have become the holdouts, the handful of New Jersey school districts that have gone against the grain and decided to keep their school elections in April, at least for now.
Under a law passed this winter, districts were allowed to move their elections to November as a way to boost voter interest. What started as a trickle quickly became a torrent: 468 districts -- nearly nine in 10 -- have made the move.
The big lure was that those making the switch would not be required to put their annual budgets to the voters, as long as they stayed below the state’s 2 percent property tax cap.
But for a scant handful of districts, just 71 in all, that apparently wasn't enough.
In Camden County, only Haddon Heights is voting in April. Bridgeton will be the only April vote in Cumberland County; Readington, the only one in Hunterdon. Every district has switched in Burlington, Cape May, and Union counties.
So what has kept those holdouts voting in the springtime, this year on April 17?
The reasons varied with each district. Some wanted to ensure that the public could still vote directly on their taxes. Others feared that school elections would be overwhelmed if they had to share a ballot with legislators, governors, and even the president.
And still others said they at least wanted to have more time to think about it, citing the rule that once switched, a district cannot go back for four years.
Neptune Township was just one of two districts in Monmouth that is keeping to an April vote, the other being Marlboro. Its superintendent listed all of above as reasons.
“I’m not sure which weighed more in the end, but there was a concern in taking the public’s voice away,” said David Mooij, the district superintendent. “There was a sense it was just a knee-jerk reaction to the legislation to move the election.”
Like others, there was lengthy discussion among Neptune’s board members. They did not see the protests that neighboring Toms River or Oceanport saw over the move, the superintendent said, just passionate debate as to voters’ place in the process.
“It’s always kept us on our toes because we knew we’d be scrutinized by the voters,” he said. “We just didn’t know if there was going to be the same level of transparency.”
Harrington Park was one of 20 districts in Bergen County to stay in April, by the state’s count. That’s a minority of the state’s largest county but by far the highest number to remain.
Harrington Park superintendent Adam Fried said his board’s concerns were many, but one was the potential politicization of the process if the election moved to November, even with the budget not on the ballot. This year, that means school board members would be elected on the same ballot as the president.
“We felt strongly that the elections were placed in April for a reason and that this could create an environment that is not educationally based but [based on] what party you belong to,” Fried said.
In other states with November school votes, he said, “you'll see some staggering numbers regarding what people are spending in elections across the country.”
Still, it wasn’t an easy vote for many of those who decided to stand pat. In Montgomery, the board’s vote was 3-4 against a resolution to move the election.
Board president Christine Ross voted against the resolution, saying she was especially worried that education issues would get lost in a presidential election.
“This was absolutely the worst year to be trying this,” Ross said. “Even with a lot of dominos falling, there were a lot of people who thought waiting would be prudent.”
Garden State Coalition of Schools