LIFE IN NEW JERSEY: If you haven’t heard of charter schools, then you are missing one of the most interesting debates in public schooling, at least here in the US.
‘Charter Schools vs. Public: Is One Better Than the Other?’is just one article amongst many education news stories, that continue to grab parents’ attention.
Charter schools are a well-established concept in New Jersey. Those now operating in Newark perhaps could be described as the poster child for the local charter school movement. As one of the state’s larger cities, Newark is an urban location that hosts many New Jersey charter schools, some of which rank amongst the best performing schools overall.
When you ask other parents’ opinions about charter schools though, you realize that this can be a very controversial and emotive subject. Why? Well, one of the downsides to charter schools is that they take away funds as well as students from existing school district purses. This plus other factors seem to result in a decline in the traditional neighborhood school. So while the rising charter school can achieve great results it seems to be at the expense of the existing same-area schools.
It’s easy to see why this would be a polarizing issue.
For any new expat coming here to live, it is a good idea to be aware of all the public schooling options available. So below is some basic but essential information on New Jersey charter schools .
Seven Must-know facts on New Jersey Charter Schools
1. What are charter schools?
Charter schools are independently operated schools that are allowed more flexibility than conventional public schools in exchange for increased accountability1. They are accountable to parents of their students, their sponsor (usually the state board of education), and to the public. They are often independent of the local school district’s board of education (BOE) and in this case, they are managed by a board of trustees. Ref: 1. National Charter School Resource Center
2. Is a charter school a type of public school?
Yes but they are not considered ‘public schools’ in the traditional sense. The exception to this is that they are publicly-funded. As such, they make up one of the public schooling options available in New Jersey. Charter schools cannot charge tuition fees and are open to anyone to apply to enroll. In New Jersey, most charter schools do not receive public funding per student as regular public schools do. Often private donations are sought to supplement funding.
An interesting part of New Jersey charter schools is the ‘hybrid school’ concept. This is where an existing traditional public school transforms into a charter school, though still under the auspices of the local school district BOE.
3. How are charter schools different from public schools?
Charter schools operate under a charter granted by the Commissioner of Education in New Jersey. The charter is similar to a performance contract which often runs for 3-5 years, and then has to be renewed. It outlines the schools goals, methods of assessment and the details of how they are academically and financially accountable. Charter schools participate in the same statewide assessments and accountability measures as traditional public schools. However, they are not usually accountable to the local school district.
The differences between charter schools and public schools have been summarized by others as below.1
- “They (charter schools) are held accountable, not just in general, but to achievement goals embedded in their charters.
- Their student body is made up of children whose parents chose the school, and the school is tailored to the student body’s needs.
- They are given freedom from certain bureaucratic procedures with the idea that this will give them a greater ability to focus on creating academic emphasis.”
Ref 1. “Public Schools vs. Charter Schools” from www.educationbug.org.
4. Are charter schools set up only as alternative school options for poor performing school districts?
This may have initially been the reason many charter schools were set up. However more recently, charter schools are being used as a way of providing alternative schooling options for a wider range of needs. This can include catering for students whose learning styles or personalities do not fit well with traditional school models.
5. How do charter schools perform versus public schools?
There are several studies done on US charter schools from 2004 onwards with differing results. One that looked at the findings of studies that used good research methodologies1, found “that charter schools produce positive effects in elementary and middle schools that far outpace other interventions such as class-size reduction.” 2
Charter schools appear amongst the ranks of the best performing US high schools regularly. For example, 13 charter schools appeared amongst the top 100 US high schools ranked by Newsweek for 2013.
Refs: 1. “Value-Added and Experimental Studies of the Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement”. 2. National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
6. Can anyone apply to go to a charter school?
Charter schools are open to anyone to enroll. Preference though is often given to children from the local district or area where the school is located.
7. How do you get into a charter school if it’s out of your normal school district?
In New Jersey, there is now some flexibility in choosing public schooling outside of your resident school district. The Interdistrict School Choice Program, initiated recently, allows parents to apply for their child to attend a different school in a ‘choice’ district. Not every New Jersey County currently has ‘choice’ districts available but most do.
Choice districts are obligated to use the same enrollment criteria used for resident students. However, if the number of ‘choice’ seats in a district is less than that the number of students applying, a lottery is held to determine which students applications are accepted.
Parents wishing to proceed with this program may need to submit a notice of intent to participate. This needs to be done near the end of the calendar year e.g. late November. Notification of acceptance or rejection will be sent before the year ends. The full process for applying for Choice districts can be found on the Department of Education website. Check this information fully before planning school options for your children.
New Jersey charter schools are increasing in popularity as an alternative to traditional schooling. It seems that they sometimes offer the benefit of a particular focus in education that public schools do not. The state’s charter school law was passed to give parents more choices for their children’s education.
This has been the sixth and final article in a series on New Jersey public schools.