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LCCS' Skinner featured in WSJ on charter schools
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2009/4/27 22:18
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WSJ 10/19

Charter Backers Want More Action From Christie

Charter-school advocates in New Jersey are keeping a close eye on Gov. Chris Christie this year, saying he has been a vocal cheerleader but his administration has been slow to implement changes to help their movement gain ground.

"People inside the charter-school community are a little disappointed," said Shelley Skinner, a board member of the New Jersey Charter School Association and director at a Jersey City charter school. "We like what we hear from the governor, and we're excited that he's excited about charter schools. But we have yet to hear any concrete details on the issues that are going to help us be sustainable."

Publicly, Mr. Christie has said he wants to open more charter schools and attract more organizations with records of successfully running them. Charter operators and consultants, though, say the administration needs to be more specific about funding, free access to unused facilities and regulations they say hamstring them. They also describe a Department of Education that is well-meaning but understaffed.

Recent moves have left some in the charter community scratching their heads. In a month when Mr. Christie said he wanted to vastly expand charter schools, the state quietly approved just six, out of 36 applications submitted. And while the state trumpeted a move that gave charter schools access to $30 million in low-cost federal loans for buildings, charter officials said it would come too late for them to use it before the program's end-of-year deadline.

"The administration is not going to achieve a culture change overnight," DOE spokesman Alan Guenther said. "But we have taken really significant steps to help improve the environment here. We would ask for their patience, and we think that their patience will be rewarded."

Charter schools, approved in New Jersey in 1995, are public schools formed as independent districts and are often places that test innovative methods. State funding is less generous than for traditional districts.

This year, 50 applications for charter schools were submitted by the deadline Friday?the highest number in at least 10 years, according to the state Department of Education. Yet without start-up money or help paying rent?two things the state isn't obligated to provide?it will be difficult for the new schools to make a go of it, said Brian Keenan, president of Real Estate Advisory and Development Services, a charter consultant.

"If there's no start-up money for them, I don't know how we're going to do it," Mr. Keenan said. "Where are these charter schools going to get money to open their doors, hire teachers, and put their deposit down or pay their first month's rent?"

The DOE is making is forming a team to address charter schools' concerns, and the administration intends to hire more people, Mr. Guenther said.

The biggest challenge this year will come as Mr. Christie revises the formula the state uses to dole out tax dollars to school districts. Now, charter schools receive at most 90% of the subsidy traditional districts receive. In addition, charter operators want free access to unused space in public-school buildings they say have already been paid for once by taxpayers. Mr. Guenther said the Attorney General's office is expected to finish a review of the formula this year and he could not comment further.

The governor's vocal support?he has made passionate speeches on the subject from Washington to the set of Oprah Winfrey's TV show?is something, at least, said Carlos Perez, chief executive of the state's charter association.

"I'm not saying that he has done an inadequate job," Mr. Perez said. "Cut him a little bit of slack. It's been less than a year. We want to see the best environment for charter schools, but we also recognize that changing an entire state culture around education is a big shift to move."

Posted on: 2010/10/19 14:50

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