NEWARK, NJ - Charter school leaders and their advocates are gathering in Newark Thursday morning for their annual conference amid a new reality: the state's top elected official—unlike his predecessor—is not a strong supporter of the alternative public schools that have taken root over the last two decades in cities like Newark, Camden, Paterson and Plainfield.
In his first year in office, Gov. Chris Christie attended the charter school conference in Long Branch, where he pledged his support for charters and told advocates that they could expect to see even more charter schools open while he was governor.
Christie delivered on his promise as charter school enrollment doubled to 50,000 during his tenure.
In contrast, Gov. Phil Murphy has called for a "time out" on charter schools and his education commissioner, Lamont Repollet, recently announced the beginning of a review of the state's public charter schools.
Murphy ran with the support of the New Jersey Education Association, which has advocated for a moratorium on the approval of all new applications for charter schools and all applications for expansion of existing charters.
Last week, the Murphy administration rejected all 13 charter school applications submitted to the state for approval.
Now, charter school advocates are fighting back.
A coalition of parents, students, educators, community leaders, and public charter school supporters announced the launch of a campaign Wednesday to educate the public and policy makers about charter schools through social media, postcards to Repollet, town-hall style events across the state and a dedicated website.
The #ILoveMyCharter campaign will urge the commissioner to use the review, advocates say, to fix "deeply unfair" laws that give public charter school students zero dollars in facilities funding.
"Charter schools are providing high-quality public school choices in the state of New Jersey and they deserve to be treated fairly," said Harry Lee, interim president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association..
Lee said charter schools are at an unfair advantage compared with traditional district schools because they are funded at 73 cents on the dollar.
“Our hope is that the Commissioner's review takes real steps to fix this deeply unfair system, while giving more opportunities for these great public schools to serve more students," Lee said.
The waitlists for public charter schools are estimated at more than 35,000 names long, which charter advocates say demonstrates the clear need for additional public charter school seats.
In Newark alone, more than 17,000 students are enrolled in charter schools with thousands more on waitlists. Newark has some of the highest performing charters in the nation including Uncommon Schools North Star Academy, where 100 percent of the graduates were accepted to college, and nearly 80 percent have graduated from college or are on track to do so. A 2015 Stanford study found that Newark’s public charter sector was the second best in the nation.
“Our kids are public school students like any other,” said Jasmine Morrison, a North Star Academy Charter School parent. “They deserve to be funded fairly, just like any other public school students. That’s why we need this campaign.”
Charter schools serve predominantly black and Latino and low income students. Some 86 percent are black or Latino and 72 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Yet, 89 percent of charter school students graduate from high school
By law, public charter schools are open to all students. When more students apply for a charter school than there are available seats, the school holds a random lottery to determine who gets in.
While New Jersey's two-decade old charter school law provides charter schools with public funding, it does not provide facilities funding, which means charter schools have to spend up to 10 percent of their operating budget to pay for facilities. Charter advocates say it adds up to millions of dollars that cannot be used in the classroom.
The #ILoveMyCharter campaign will also dispel common myths and misconceptions about public charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that are held strictly accountable by the state--if they don’t perform, they close.
“I chose Phillips Academy Charter School because that was the strongest school in my community, said Ashley Campbell, a parent who lives in Paterson. "I felt was going to help my daughter achieve the goals I had set for her when it came to her future.”