Gov. Christie Favors Charter Schools, Ignores Waiver Agreement with U.S. Dept. of Ed.

New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie’s disdain for democracy is notorious.  The state of New Jersey has been running the public schools of Newark for 20 years, and referring to the citizens—parents and students—of Newark, Christie declared: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.”  It would appear that Christie is equally cavalier about his promises to Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education.  New Jersey’s Department of Education has been ignoring the terms of the state’s No Child Left Behind Waiver—ignoring the program the New Jersey Department of Education’s own staff proposed as the way New Jersey would implement the waiver.

Here is how the National Education Association and the New Jersey Education Association describe the problem in a formal letter of complaint they sent to U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, earlier this week: “(T)he state made extensive commitments to support the turnaround of its lowest-performing Priority schools, primarily through seven new Regional Achievement Centers throughout the state, in exchange for the waiver of many statutory requirements under ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act), including the requirements…  related to corrective action for schools failing to make adequate yearly progress, as well as sections… expanding the State’s flexibility in distributing federal funds.  The Education Law Center recently alerted the Department that the State has failed to fulfill these commitments in the Newark Public School system.  We are writing to inform the Department of even farther-reaching deficiencies in the Camden City School District…. Instead of working to turnaround Priority schools in Camden, the State is seeking to transfer five public schools to private parties to operate as ‘renaissance’ charter schools and to close an additional public school.”

The letter  describes a series of supports for struggling schools that were promised in the state’s application for a federal waiver.  Regional Achievement Centers were to be established to develop comprehensive individualized school improvement plans for each of New Jersey’s seriously struggling schools.  Improvements were to include model curriculum, new tests, professional development for teachers to improve instruction, new data management, and innovative programs for students with disabilities, English language learners, and low achievers.

In Camden instead, according to NEA and NJEA, “At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, the State seized direct control of the Camden Public Schools.  Rather than reinvigorating State support for turning around Camden’s troubled schools, State support began to taper off.”  The director of the Regional Achievement Center (RAC) serving Camden resigned in 2013 and has not been replaced.  “Without leadership, the RAC’s activities tapered off.  Many Priority schools’ School Improvement Plans—the comprehensive individualized plans that were to guide turnaround efforts were either delayed or partially implemented.  By the 2014-2015 school year, the RAC ceased functioning altogether…  The RAC likewise no longer has an office.  The School Leader positions were abolished, and Priority schools in Camden had few or no School Leaders to drive change.”

This spring in Camden, Christie’s Department of Education has begun so-called “turnarounds”—privatizing and closing the schools it promised to improve in its application for the No Child Left Behind waiver.

NEA and NJEA ask Arne Duncan to intervene: “NEA and NJEA urge the Department to use its oversight authority to ensure full and effective implementation of the State’s approved ESEA statutory waiver and to deny the State’s recent request to renew its waiver unless and until the State is in full compliance with the terms set forth in its waiver application.  In particular, the Department should hold the State to its promises to the Priority Schools in Camden and prevent the State from reneging on those promises by transferring those public schools to private charter school management companies.”

Governor Christie’s Department of Education is, of course, pursuing its own set of priorities, represented not only in Camden and in Cami Anderson’s troubled One Newark Plan, but also in a state budget maneuver designed to reward charter schools and hurt traditional public schools.  The Education Law Center reports that Governor Christie has proposed to hold charter school funding harmless at the 2016 or 2014 per pupil level, whichever is highest, with added funding to support growth in student enrollment.  At the same time, Christie proposes to flat-fund public education for FY 16.  “The budgetary maneuver, if approved, will mean 83 school districts must send an extra $37.5 million to charter schools across the state.”

David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center comments: “The Governor’s charter hold harmless is a double whammy for students in district-run schools, especially those in Newark.  The Governor provides no funding increase to support the education of district students, but then instructs districts to transfer more of their limited funds to charters to make sure they don’t suffer the same cuts as districts are now implementing in their schools.  It is patently unfair to protect charter school budgets while hurting students in district schools.”