The Charter School Movement Remains Mired in Controversy

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The controversy over charter schools has been beset with several arguments and scenarios: Should Charter Schools only be approved for districts with failing public schools? How do we determine if schools are failing? How do we determine the cause of student underachievement?

Longitudinal studies have presented discomforting information. Although New Jersey’s school children score above the national average on standardized tests, our inner city public school children do not fare as well, especially in districts where there is a high level of poverty and single parent families. In fact, there has been a correlation between the level of parent involvement in school activities and student academic achievement; is inner city lack of achievement a result of a school failing to serve the student or is it a result of the family environment?

A comparison between the academic achievements of students in inner city charter schools versus those in standard pubic schools may give us few answers, as only the parents with the strongest interests in a child’s academic achievement will pursue placement in a charter school. In essence, do we have a mechanism to determine teacher effectiveness when other variables, such as the family and neighborhood environment and socio-economic status come into play?

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Finally, a major question exists regarding the democratic process. Can charter schools employing public money be approved when the local taxpayers have vetoed such a plan? One of the major issues regarding the charter school movement is that it takes badly needed funds away from the standard public schools.

Recently, the decision of the State Department of Education (DOE) to withhold approval for a proposed charter school has caused three members of the State Legislature to rejoice. Senator Richard J. Codey, Assemblywoman Mila M. Jasey and Assemblyman John F. McKeon, all Democrats from District 27, have exclaimed their approval of the State’s rejection of the Hua Mei charter school application. The three lawmakers are the primary sponsor of a bill that would require voter approval for the creation of a charter school. According to Senate bill 2243 (and Assembly bill 3852, the electorate will control proposed charters. As Codey has suggested, the refusal of the DOE to approve the charter

"……is a victory for the people of our district who fought hard to oppose a charter school in one of our state's highest performing school districts……We were glad to be able to lead the fight to stop and prevent funds from being diverted from our already cash-strapped public schools."

The school, designed to be based in Maplewood, would have drawn students from South Orange\Maplewood, West Orange and possibly Millburn and other communities. According to McKeon:

"New Jersey students are among the nation's top performers as a result of our state's outstanding public education system. Charter schools are meant for failing districts and should not divert resources from traditional public schools which have already felt the impact of the budget and depleted state funding."

In addition to the three legislators, a movement against the charter school approval was led by a parent, Marianne Raab, who stated that:

"Reason has prevailed in Trenton……….The state's acting education commissioner made the right call by approving charter schools only in districts which need them."

The Charter School movement has elicited a response to a burning issue for all taxpayers; can public funding be spent without voter approval? The issue will continue, as more and more charter school applications are presented to the Department of Education for approval or rejection. The secondary argument, as presented by the Governor, is that charter schools can potentially save New Jersey’s children from failing schools. Once again, can we determine that the schools are failing, or are families and the communities responsible?

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