Do Gov. Murphy and Ed. Comm. Repollet Have What it Takes to Put Education Over Politics?

“We parents filled that room last night and our voices were heard on why we LOVE our Public Charter schools!”

That’s Paterson parent Ashley Lauren describing the vibrant atmosphere at the NJ Department of Education’s first of five stops on its Charter School Program Outreach 2018 Calendar. With almost no notice (the dates for focus groups were announced on Thursday, October 11th and the Paterson meeting was the following Tuesday) and at a parent-unfriendly time of day (see here for more on this), 210 people packed the Paterson Free Library  — organizers had to set up an overflow room — to share their thoughts on how to  best improve the state’s 23-year-old charter school law.

According to the Paterson Times,

April Brown, a mother of a third grader, praised charter schools for providing programming not available at the Paterson district schools. She said music and art have been taken out of district schools, but are available at charters.

“I feel like when charter schools got started it brought life to education here in the City of Paterson,” said Brown in response to a question that asked what she likes about charter schools. “In the charter schools they have things like art and music.”

That night participants suggested thoughtful improvements to the law: extending charter renewals beyond every five years, expediting expansions of successful schools in order to reduce the number of children (35,000 total) on charter waiting lists, having the state fund charters directly instead of the inflammatory system we use now that requires districts to make tuition payments.

So why my skepticism about this charter review process?  Here are two reasons.

Reason #1: Governor Phil Murphy appears in thrall to NJEA leaders, who have called for a charter school “moratorium.” NJEA President Marie Blistan told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I do expect at some point he’s going to do that.” Paul Disdier, an aspiring Trenton charter school founder, said, “[t]here’s been talk that the union has been pushing the governor to review the charter-school system…it seems as though it’s politics over education.” And Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, the sole authorizer of charter schools per NJ’s 23-year-old charter school law, seems to have implemented a surreptitious moratorium by not even bothering to interview the two finalists this most recent round, even though interviews are a customary and mandated part of the process, 

Reason #2: The community input portion of the DOE’s Charter School Act Program Review seems cursory at best. There are only five sessions, none in South Jersey, and there’s a (new?) warning on this page telling parents they can’t just show up but have to register first. (Maybe the DOE was overwhelmed by the turnout in Paterson, a data point all on its own.)  But how long does this review last? How long before we start reviewing charter applications in a transparent way, beyond the charade exercised this past round? Got me. For a sense of the Governor’s pace, consider his announcement upon inauguration of a review of NJ Transit, which was to be completed in three months. That deadline hit seven months ago.

With all due respect, the DOE’s own track record for reviews does not imbue one with confidence. The last one was on the tests-formerly-known-as-PARCC. How’d that go? The Commissioner appeared magisterially before the State Board of Education with a proposal to slash accountability and starve schools of data on student proficiency and growth by cutting high school tests from six to two. They threw him out. (Well, not really, but the preliminary agreement issued by the Board reduces the number of tests from six to four.) In October Repollet told NJ Monthly that the charter review will mirror the standardized tests review.

Because that went so well. 

It’s one thing to inconvenience commuters. It’s another matter entirely to steal precious learning time from students trapped in low-performing schools. Yup, politics over education.

This has gotten dark. I don’t mean it so. Let’s return to that initial quote by that Paterson mother: “We parents filled that room last night and our voices were heard on why we LOVE our Public Charter schools!”

Gov. Murphy and Comm. Repollet, listen to the parents. They need charter school seats right now, not when it is politically palatable. Can we switch it up and privilege education over politics? Thirty-five thousand children await your answer. 

What do you think?

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