New Jersey Slows Charter School Growth

The New Jersey Department of Education raised some eyebrows this fall when state administrators approved only four new charter schools out of an applicant pool of 55, writes Sarah Butrymowicz at the Hechinger Report.

This may just sound like frugal decision making, but considering that in a different round of applications just nine months earlier, they granted 23 charters as part of Gov. Chris Christie's pro-charter education reform agenda, it is a certain indication that the winds have changed.

Some experts are suggesting that New Jersey has made a conscious decision to slow charter growth, reflecting a national trend to focus on quality over quantity. The move could also be considered a peace offering to suburban voters, who are unhappy with the proliferation of charters in the state. After all, of the four charters recently approved, three will be located in cities – which could be considered a victory for many suburban towns that vigorously fought proposals to open charters in their school districts.

Some are describing the decrease in the number of new charters as political sleight of hand, designed to distract from and ultimately stop legislation that would significantly overhaul New Jersey's charter school law, by mandating financial transparency and requiring a local vote for charter approval, writes Butrymowicz.

"We don't quite know what limits we're hitting, but somehow we may be reaching the dollars required and collective enthusiasm necessary to open up charter schools," said Bruce Fuller, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley who studies charter schools.

Around 400 charter schools have opened every year in the past years. And that's even in the light of research showing that the majority of charters don't do significantly better than their traditional counterparts. But maybe this bubble is bursting. Some states, like Minnesota and Ohio, have hit the brakes on charter-school expansion to ensure quality among those that do open. And now it looks as if New Jersey may be joining them.

In speeches and press conferences, both Gov. Christie and acting state education commissioner Chris Cerf have said that charters may not have a place in districts that beat statewide averages on standardized tests. Christie has said, for instance, that if a charter were to open in a suburb, "there should be a need for that school and a demand for that school."

Still, Todd Ziebarth, vice president of state advocacy and support at the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, argues that while charter-school authorizers in some states have become more discerning and slowed expansion, there are still new areas in which the charter movement can grow, writes Butrymowicz.

"The charter phenomenon is spreading to other states," Ziebarth said. "Within states, it's spreading to different" communities.

He acknowledged that New Jersey seems to be slowing down charter growth, however. "It seems like the state has raised the bar on what they want to see in the quality of the application," Ziebarth said. "It's not surprising to see a low percentage this time around. We'll see if it adjusts."

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