50K students are enrolled in public charter schools, but state shortchanges funding

June 20, 2018

As the governor and the state Legislature look to fix a broken school funding process, we call on them to rectify a long-overlooked part of school funding that is shortchanging tens of thousands of students throughout the state: public charter school facilities funding.

There are more than 50,000 students enrolled in public charter schools in New Jersey. If these students formed a single district, they would be the largest in the state.

And yet the state denies these public school students equal access to facilities' funding programs that all other school districts can use. New Jersey remains far behind other states that provide public charter schools access to under-utilized facilities, or capital funding to rent, construct or improve facilities. 

In order to run schools that put students first and keep more resources in the classroom where they belong, public charter schools such as ours use every possible government program to help us deliver high-quality school buildings at a reasonable cost.

Our schools partner with nonprofit organizations that utilize federal programs to fund the development and renovation of facilities. These are Clinton- and Obama-era programs designed to help redevelop urban areas. They have broad bipartisan support, and are widely utilized by nonprofits in health care, higher education, affordable housing and other important programs.

The impact public charter schools are having in New Jersey has been nationally-recognized. In Newark, 35 percent of students are attending a charter school and by any measure, the city has some of the best public charter schools in the country. Newark charters have closed the gap with the state, becoming one of the few cities in the country where tens of thousands of low-income students of color are performing on par with statewide averages.

This is a huge accomplishment and one that should make all New Jerseyans feel proud. As a result Newark has more "beat the odds" schools than any other city in the U.S.

As public school students, our children deserve access to public school facilities. Because public charter schools do not have access to public buildings, we must seek other options. We work with other nonprofit organizations to buy and renovate empty schools, rent space from our host public school districts, or build new buildings when we have no other options.

As nonprofits, we seek to keep the cost of these buildings to a minimum, and because none of our board members or employees profit from them, we are able to spend the money we save on the education of our students. Our track record in keeping costs down and maximizing the dollars allocated to the classroom speaks for itself: we spend only about 10 percent our budget on rent, resulting in millions of dollars going back into our educational programming each year.  

Given the complexity of state and federal laws, our financing arrangements to secure facilities just to serve public school students often seem complex and frustrating at first glance - and we agree. If public charter schools received the same access to school facilities and school facilities funding that every other public school receives, this would not be the case.

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We consider our ability to develop high-quality facilities for our children in the face of these obstacles to be an unmitigated success story. In spite of a glaring gap in the funding laws, we've taken our dedication to kids and spirited ingenuity to find ways to use existing government programs to construct world-class school buildings, invest millions in urban areas, and create jobs.

Charter school laws in New Jersey have received an F grade in national research due, in large part, to the lack of facilities funding. Other states have devised strong solutions to meet this need - in Washington D.C., charter schools receive roughly $3,000 per pupil per year for facilities; in New York City, charters are guaranteed access to public school space or an additional 30 percent boost in their per pupil funding to cover private facilities costs. By contrast, in any evaluation of charter schools nationwide, New Jersey has a glaring zero next to adequate facilities funding, because there is none.

Fortunately, New Jersey charter schools have been able to make the best of this difficult situation and offer the 21st century learning environments our students, teachers and communities deserve.

Charter schools in cities like Newark and Camden are outperforming expectations and are closing the achievement gap. With fair funding and facilities laws, our students could expand on that success as money currently spent acquiring facilities could be rerouted to the classroom.

New Jersey lawmakers can fix this problem and help our state lead the way once again by providing charter schools with equal access to the same facilities funding programs as district schools. Doing so would create jobs across the state and help revitalize communities, all with the single purpose of improving student outcomes in every neighborhood and every school in New Jersey.

Ryan Hill is founder and CEO of KIPP New Jersey.

Brett Peiser is CEO of Uncommon Schools.

Reforming teacher tenure / A reasonable start

February 21, 2011

Teachers make a compelling argument that it is neither fair, nor particularly effective, to tie their salaries solely to student performance on standardized tests. Schools are not factories. Teachers do not have total control over their “product.” Motivation, parents, socioeconomic factors all play key roles in student performance. And teachers who do focus solely on test scores — teaching to the test — simply shortchange their students.

But having said that, holding teachers more accountable, making tenure harder to get and creating financial incentives for excellence in the classroom are reasonable goals that would improve schools anywhere. Under New Jersey’s 100-year-old teacher tenure system, only 17 of the state’s 100,000 tenured teachers have been dismissed in the last 10 years. Everyone — including teachers — knows there are more lazy, ineffective teachers than that.

The problem is how to reconcile those two paragraphs above.

Last week, however, Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf laid down the groundwork for what seems to be a sensible middle ground. And refreshingly, he did it with none of the bombast of his boss, Gov. Chris Christie.

Cerf, who called teachers “saints,” proposed a system that would reward teachers for good student performance, for teaching difficult subjects and for teaching in impoverished schools. Tenure would not be abolished under his proposal, but it would not be automatic.

Cerf proposed a new evaluation system that would grade teachers as “highly effective,” “effective,” “partially effective” or “ineffective.” Those ratings would be based half on test scores and half on other factors, including more intensive in-room evaluations by principals.

Salaries would be based on these evaluations. And rather than award tenure automatically after three years, which is the current system, tenure would be awarded only after three consecutive years of “highly effective” or “effective” ratings. Teachers could also lose tenure after repeated poor evaluations. Any layoffs would be based on performance, not seniority.

This is a good start for the conversation New Jersey needs to have.

Cerf was quickly criticized by the New Jersey Education Association and some Democratic lawmakers. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, said improving underperforming schools was “more complicated than throwing around slogans.”

But that’s exactly what Cerf did not do — throw around slogans.

Certainly, none of this is easy. Cerf acknowledged standardized tests might have to be reworked to be fairer to teachers. And certainly, teachers must be protected from school-board politics and a principal’s mood on the morning he or she evaluates a teacher. But Cerf has presented a calm, nuanced approach that does not bash teachers or rely on overheated rhetoric. Let’s just hope his bombastic boss can handle that.