Ailing Public and Private Schools Consider Conversion to Charter

September 11, 2012

Converting traditional public and private schools to charter schools is a hot topic across the nation and even now a Hollywood movie, but the conversions are drawing little interest in New Jersey.

Charter school conversions allow struggling public and even private schools to convert to charter schools with approval of their parents and staff, freeing them up to try different programs and governance independent of the local districts.

Still, in New Jersey’s long history of charter schools, no traditional public schools have taken the bait, with some saying the requirements are too daunting for any district school to overcome.

Nonetheless, there is the first interest from a non-public school, with St. Philips Academy in Newark, a non-religious private school, applying to the state to be a charter school under a law enacted last winter.Still, in New Jersey’s long history of charter schools, no traditional public schools have taken the bait, with some saying the requirements are too daunting for any district school to overcome.

The school in Newark’s Central Ward is in the current crop of charter school applicants to be decided by October, with the state starting to draw up some regulations, for instance, to how fast parochial schools would have to remove any religious symbols or other programs that may be antithetical and unconstitutional to their new status.

Still, few expect a big rush of such conversions in the state, with it being a select group that would even consider it.

Overall, charter conversions have seen a mix of interest in other states. New York, for instance, has seen few such conversions as well, while in California, more than 130 traditional schools have converted to charters as of this year, according to its charter school association.

That has been coupled with some fledgling interest in so-called “parent trigger” measures that allow parents alone to call for a conversion, again with California leading the way. Most notable has been the story in Compton, Calif., where parents’ move on one school subsequently brought legal challenges and all the national attention.

Those circumstances helped inspire the newly released movie, “Won’t Back Down,” starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, which has become the latest Hollywood rallying cry of the school reform movement, including in New Jersey.

A showing of the movie is set for Newark on Sept. 18, hosted by StudentsFirst and Better Education for Kids New Jersey (B4K), two pro-reform organizations.

StudentsFirst is headed by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former superintendent of Washington, D.C. schools, and herself a star of the last notable movie of the same genre, “Waiting for Superman.”

Nonetheless, New Jersey’s conversion laws are considerably more restrictive, some say a reason for the nominal interest in the state. For public schools to seek conversions, current law requires approval of a majority of both teachers and parents, a high bar to overcome.

“That’s a pretty tough mountain to climb,” said state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. “It’s just never been thought to be a very realistic path.”

A “parent trigger” bill that would give full power to parents to seek the conversions of traditional public schools was introduced last year by state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in the upcoming election. But it was never even referred to committee for review, let alone posted for a vote.

Derrell Bradford, a leader of Better Education for Kids New Jersey, one of the movie showing’s sponsors, said there is some interest in parent trigger measures for New Jersey, and he thought “Won’t Back Down” worth the promotion. But he acknowledged the political hurdles remain pretty high for any bill to pass.

“We know until there is a Democratic sponsor, this is unlikely to be posted,” said Bradford, executive director of B4K.

Nonetheless, the new measure for at least non-public schools to apply to the state to be charter schools passed last fall, co-sponsored by state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). Lesniak yesterday said he hoped more Catholic schools that are struggling to stay open in the state’s urban areas would take up the option. None have yet done so, with so far St. Philips the only taker at all.

He said part of the reason has been the Newark Archdiocese’s opposition of the measure on the grounds that it wants to save Catholic education wherever it can and not eviscerate it with the state’s requirements as charter schools.

Under regulations being drawn up and discussed at the State Board of Education last week, any remnants of religious education would have to be removed immediately.

“There just doesn’t seem a whole lot of interest for this anymore,” Lesniak said. “Still, if it’s worth it to at least a few cases, then it was worth trying.”

Editor's Note: The initial version of this story incorrectly referred to St. Philips School in Newark as a parochial school. It is a non-religious independent school. The story has been corrected.