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Charter Schools Update Consensus 2014

The League of Women Voters of the Princeton Area participated in consensus regarding the LWV of New Jersey Charter School Update Study. To read more about the Charter Schools Update Study and Consensus Questions from the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, click here.

LWV of the Princeton Area 
Number in attendance – 12 plus one guest 
November 11, 2014 
lwvprinceton@gmail.com

Consensus Questions and LWV-Princeton Responses
(LWV-Princeton Area written responses, in italics, follow each question)

Question 1. Should charter school applications include a section on the expected relationship between the charter and the other district public schools? 
_X  Yes 
___ No 
___ No Consensus 

Communication about charter school innovations is important. The Commissioner of Education should decide what innovations listed in the charter school's annual report are worth reporting to traditional public schools. 

Question 2. Should charter school students take the same standardized tests as the district public schools? 
___  A. Yes. Charter school students should take the same standardized tests as district public schools. 
_X_ B. Yes – and charter schools should use additional measures to provide information relevant to goals unique to the charter school. 
___  C. No. Charter schools are unique and their students do not need to take the same standardized tests as district public schools. 
___  D. No Consensus 

There was agreement that everyone should take the same standardized tests and that charters should use additional measures to provide additional information since the original purpose of charters was to allow innovation and to share innovations that were successful. 

Question 3. Should the charter school demographics be similar to those of the district as a whole? Select all that represent the consensus of your League. 
_X_  A. Yes the charter school demographics should be as close as possible to the district as a whole. 
___  B. No The charter school demographics may be different from those of the district as long as the charter school’s application provides an acceptable rationale for limiting enrollment to particular students. 
___  C. No. The charter school demographics may be different from those of the district, because enrollment is based on family choice,
___  D. No consensus 

Members were confused about the directions “Select all that represent the consensus of your League” because the choices seemed mutually exclusive. “A” was chosen out of concern that charters are known to exclude certain students in spite of such exclusion being illegal. The phrase “as close as possible” allows leeway for charters to admit, say, students gifted in art or music if that is their charter. 

Question 4. For charter renewal, should charter schools be held to the same student achievement standards as district public schools? 
____ A. Yes, since charter schools are public schools, they should do as well as the traditional public schools in the district. 
____ B. Yes, though comparisons need to be adjusted for the demographics of the charter school compared to the district public schools. 
__X_ C. No. Charter schools are expected to develop methods and materials that will be more effective than those in traditional public schools, so they should be held to a higher standard. 
____ D. No. Charter schools provide choices to district families, and families will act in their best interests. 
____ E. No consensus 

Given that charters draw taxpayer dollars away from traditional schools, most members said that charters should be held to a higher standard. For example, a charter founded to specialize in art or music should be required to demonstrate achievement in those areas. 

It was suggested that the phrase “for the purpose of their charter” be added to choice C. 

Question 5. Should charter schools be required to communicate their innovative programs and practices to district public schools? 
__X_ Yes 
____  No 
____  No Consensus

Question 6. What role should the local electorate have in approving and renewing of district charters? 
____ A. Their role should be advisory, and through the local board of education. The district BOE can submit comments to the Commissioner.
____ B. Their role should be advisory and through a public hearing submitted as part of the charter school application process 
____ C. The local board of education should vote on charter applications and renewals. Board support would be necessary for the Commissioner to grant applications or renewals 
__X_ D. Charter approval (and renewal - omit) must get a majority of votes in a district referendum. 
____ E. No consensus 

Because banks, hedge funds, and wealthy foreigners get sizable tax credits for investing in charter schools located in underserved areas and can, at least indirectly, influence authorizers through campaign contributions to the legislators who appoint them (see Comments at end), and because some school disticts do not have elected BOE's, approval by referendum was the consensus. Other arguments included: referendum is the way to ensure that charters are founded where there is a true educational need. Seventy-three percent of respondants in a recent poll thought that approval should be by district referendum. If a bond is put to a vote, why not also a charter? 

There was consensus that only charter approval be submitted for a district referendum since it is at a charter's inception that its impact is felt most greatly. The Commissioner of Education can be trusted with renewing a charter. If voters chose not to renew an effective charter, students would be hurt. 


QUESTION 7: Should New Jersey law allow for more than one authorizer of public charter schools? 
____ Yes 
____ No 
____ No consensus

Consensus is to send this question back to the Study Committee for more information. Participants felt that the background material provided leaned toward multiple authorizers, whereas research from other states shows that multiple authorizers are less accountable to the public and that the likelihood of fraud is greater than in New Jersey. The model of an authorizing board comes from the National Alliance of Charter Schools, which is backed by ALEC. Organizations such as Save Our Schools have been fighting multiple authorizers for years. Participants questioned whether we want a “more robust climate for the charter school movement.” 

Participants want to know whether having one authorizer, the Commissioner of Education, is working for New Jersey. It was pointed out that in other fields such as health care and justice, there is just one authorizer – the Commissioner of Health, who approves a new hospital, or the Attorney General. Knowing “where the buck stops” assures greater accountability. 

It was agreed that the authorizer should have enough funding to carry out responsibilities for overseeing charters once they are up and running and to renew or revoke charters. Approval of charters would rest with the local electorate (Question 6). 


QUESTION 8: If the answer to Question 7 is “Yes,” indicate which categories of authorizer should be allowed by law (check all that apply) 
____ A. State Department of Education 
____ B. Higher Education Institution 
____ C. Independent Chartering Board
____ D. Local school district 
____ E. Non-Educational government entity 
____ F. Not-For-Profit 

We skipped this question because we did not answer “Yes” to Question 7. 

Question 9: Should NJ allow full-time virtual charter schools 
____ Yes 
__X_ No
____ No consensus 

Given our concerns about charter schools in general, we could not support virtual, especially full-time, charter schools. 

(Please answer Questions 10 and 11, even if you responded “No” or “No consensus” to Question 9). 

Question 10: If New Jersey were to allow full-time virtual charter schools, which population should be served? Check all that apply. 
____ Elementary school students 
____ Middle school students 
____ High school students 
____ Special populations 
____ Home schooled students 

None of the above. Participants refused to respond since we do not support full-time virtual charter schools

Question 11: Is the current NJ funding formula for charter schools appropriate for full-time virtual charter schools? 
____ Yes 
__X_ No 
____ No consensus 

Participants answered NO because we answered NO to Question 9

Question 12: - Should LWVNJ withdraw its implied support of for-profit/nonprofit Educational Management Organizations to operate charter schools while closely monitoring them? 
____ Yes 
__X_ No 
____ No consensus 

Participants question why League's current position supports “close monitoring of for-profit corporations” when, according to the Charter School Program Act 18A:36A-4a, “the private entity shall not realize a net profit from its operation of a charter school.” Participants asked how, since for-profit EMO's are thus illegal in New Jersey, Touchstone Education and K12 were approved to run the two blended virtual charter schools opened in New Jersey in the fall of 2012. 

The consensus is that EMO's merit close monitoring and that League could support them, but that the wording of League's position should reflect the law. Perhaps this question deserves more research. 

Current position: We support close monitoring of for-profit corporations’ involvement in charter 
schools. Non-profit is not mentioned, however at the time the consensus was taken for-profit educational management organizations predominated. Monitoring would be the responsibility of the board of trustees and ultimately the authorizer (NJ Commissioner of Education) 

Question 13: Should an Educational Management Organization be allowed to submit an application to establish a charter school? 
____ Yes 
__X_ No 
____ No Consensus 

Question 14: Which of the following governance standards should be enacted by law or regulation for EMO operated schools? 

Rate as: Very important, Somewhat important, or Not important 
  1. Open and full disclosure of contract and how EMO uses tax dollars 
  2. EMO representative cannot serve as member of Board of Trustees 
  3. EMO cannot select, approve, or compensate Board of Trustees 
  4. Payments from Authorizer go to accounts controlled by Board of Trustees not the EMO 
  5. Contract with EMO should require a format that would allow evaluation of costs related to 1- teaching staff; 2-administrative costs 3- curriculum/technology platform 4-facility rental 5- bonuses/EMO overhead 
  6. All materials & equipment purchased with public funds belong to the school not the EMO. The exception is proprietary technology & content particularly associated with virtual charter schools 
  7. Disclosure existing/potential conflicts of interest between board of trustees and EMO 
  8. Provisions to terminate contract
  9. Disclosure agreements regarding facilities
Each of the nine Governance Standards was rated Very Important.

Further Comments from the LWV of the Princeton Area 

Members of the LWV of the Princeton Area believe that further study and another consensus may be needed to ensure that the League's positions are based on the most current research. For example, we see the role of the local electorate in approving charter schools as especially significant because of the money to be made in charters – a fact not mentioned in the League study. 

The Community Renewal Tax Relief Act or New Markets Tax Credit Program, passed in 2000, at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, allows banks and equity funds that invest in charter schools and other projects in underserved areas to take advantage of a very generous tax credit – as much as 39% -- to help offset their expenditure in such projects. In essence, that credit amounts to doubling the amount of money they have invested within just seven years. Moreover, they are allowed to combine that tax credit with other types of credit, as well to collect interest payments on the money they are lending out – all of which can add up to far more than double in returns. This is why many big banks and equity funds are so invested in the expansion of charter schools. There are more than 6,000 charters nation-wide, up from 2,500 a decade ago, about the time when the Act become law. (http://jonathanturley.org/2013/03/16/charter-schools-and-the-profit-motive/)

And it’s not just U.S. investors who see the upside of investing in charters. Rich foreigners who invest at least $500,000 to charters under a federal program called EB-5 are allowed to purchase immigration visas for themselves and family members. Every year, the federal government hands out 10,000 of these visas. (http://www.adreamfund.com/eb-5_overview.php)

Because banks and equity funds give generously to legislators who support charter schools (Forbes, September, 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2013/09/10/charter-school-gravy-train-runs-express-to-fat-city/), there's potential conflict of interest in State-operated districts, such as Newark and Camden. Their superintendents (who vet charter school applications) are appointed by the Commissioner of Education, who is, in turn, responsible to the governor. Thus, an incentive to approve more and more charter schools – for the benefit of banks, hedge funds, and wealthy foreigners rather than for the benefit of students- seems obvious. The only brake on this engine may be the voice of the local electorate.

Additional Comments from Julia Sass Rubin

Expanding the number of charter authorizers is a strategy promoted by national charter school organizations such as NACSA (The National Association of Charter School Authorizers) in order to expand the number of charter schools by undermining the ability of local school boards to deny approval to new charter schools that want to open in their communities. 

These statewide authorizing boards are able to overrule local decision making, allowing expansion of charter schools even when it violates local community wishes.

NACSA does not deny that this is the purpose of multiple authorizers. In their documents describing why they are promoting such boards, the organization says:
“In states where only school districts serve as authorizers, some communities are likely to be overseen by districts that are hostile to all charter applications, which effectively stops all chartering.” 

The next statement in that NACSA documents admits that multiple authorizers lower charter school quality: 
“Having too many authorizers undercuts quality. In these settings, the worst applicants or schools can find an authorizer with inadequate standards that is willing to approve and protect terrible schools.” 

Source: www.qualitycharters.org/assets/files/Documents/Policy/Creating%20Independent%20Chartering%20Boards.pdf 


NACSA has used ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) for a number of years to promote the authorizing boards legislation. They stated this fact openly on the NACSA web site until ALEC became so controversial politically that NACSA stopped acknowledging the connection.

The fact that NACSA was using ALEC to promote this legislation and that the legislation was intended to undermine local school boards and expand the number of charter schools are discussed in this Phili Inquirer article:
mobile.philly.com/news/?wss=%2Fphilly%2Fnews%2Fhomepage%2F&id=137456663&deliver=iphone&c=y&viewAll=y#more 

From the article:
“But the association also employs a Washington lobbying firm, primarily to push for more federal funds for charter-authorizing agencies." 

And it works with the nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council, founded in 1973 by a conservative political activist. The council gives corporations and think tanks access to its 2,000-plus state-legislator members. The groups are circulating legislation to remove control of charters from local school boards through creation of state charter-school commissions that would free school officials from "regulatory interference by other governmental agencies" - a position even some charter backers say could lead to corruption and more failing schools.”

ALEC is continuing to promote the multiple charter school authorizer idea:
“At the Dallas meeting, ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] also trumpeted the launch of a new charter school working group. Among the measures the group discussed: 

A controversial measure proposed by Scott Walker in Wisconsin to create a statewide charter school authorizing board, bypassing local authority over charter schools, even as charters drain funds from local districts."

Source: www.truth-out.org/news/item/25692-the-con-artistry-of-charter-schools

States with multiple authorizers have the worst performing charter schools. This chart shows which states have multiple authorizers and which models they use to authorize:
www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/charter-authorizers-by-state.html?cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS2 

As the chart documents, states with the most authorizers are Louisiana, Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio. Each of those states has an abundance of low-quality charter schools and has experiences significant charter school scandals and abuses. The abuses are so extreme, that NACSA is now trying to rein in the number of authorizers in these states as the scandals are damaging the charter school brand.
www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2014/07/ohio_is_the_wild_wild_west_of.html 

Massachusetts, which has the highest performing charter schools, has only one authorizer. Just as in New Jersey, that authorizer is the Commission of Education.

The state Department of Education is the only entity with the information and other resources to perform the due diligence required for authorizing new charter schools. Local authorizers – such as Universities, nonprofit organizations, and charter authorizing boards – do not have the resources and are much more likely to be captured by special interests.

An optimal charter school approval process would combine the state Department of Education performing due diligence on charter applicants with a local approval requirement - via a popular vote or a local school board vote - so that local communities have the information they need to make informed decisions and the power to democratically make those decisions.

Julia Sass Rubin, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the Edward J Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.