New Jersey’s governor blocked the growth of its best charter schools. Why?

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New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy with Gulshan Chhabra, right, who hosted a fundraiser at his home Aug. 8, 2021. Photo: ITV Gold

Why has New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s chief education official told seven high-performing public charter schools, including one of the best in the country, that they cannot expand their enrollments?

It is a puzzle that exposes obscure administrative and political complications in how states deal with the tax-supported but independently run charters that educate more than 3.3 million American children.

Murphy is a Democrat who says he supports charters, although his party is influenced by teachers unions that don’t like the fact that most charters are not unionized. Teachers unions have called charters a financial drain on regular public schools. I don’t understand that argument since parents seem to me entitled to send their kids to charters their taxes help pay for.

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New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Angelica Allen-McMillan, told the affected charters why they can’t admit more students, although her reasons are difficult to understand, at least in a case I have studied closely.

That school is the North Star Academy in Newark, the first of what are now 57 nonprofit charters in the Uncommon Schools network in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts. The network specializes in raising achievement for low-income Black and Hispanic students. It works to make sure its alumni not only go to college but also graduate. North Star serves kindergarten to 12th-grade students across 14 campuses. According to the nonprofit New Jersey Children’s Foundation and state data, more Black students at North Star scored proficient on the 2019 state tests in math and literacy than in the entire Newark school district, even though the district has three times as many Black children as the school does.

North Star’s high school classes are among the wonders of the education world. The academy is in the top 1 percent of U.S. high schools ranked by participation in college-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams on my Challenge Index list. Seventy-nine percent of its students are from impoverished families, yet AP participation there outranks affluent schools such as Northern Virginia’s McLean High (8 percent low income) and Silicon Valley’s Saratoga High (1 percent low income) in California. Sixty-one percent of North Star’s graduating class of 2020 passed at least one AP exam, compared with 31 percent for New Jersey and 24 percent for the country.

North Star was singled out for the complexity of its teaching and learning in Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine’s 2019 book on high schools, “In Search of Deeper Learning.” Their book described a biology class where 20 students discussed why morphological changes happen over time. The students suggested these factors: natural selection, morphological mutations, punctuated equilibrium and allopatric speciation. Asked by the teacher to define the last term, a student said without hesitation: “When species that are related develop different characteristics because they are in different environments.”

North Star sought permission this year to increase by at least 311 the number of students allowed to benefit from its accelerated approach. Allen-McMillan said no, the second year in a row the school has been denied expansion. Allen-McMillan admitted that the school was in the top tier for all grades in academic performance. It met the requirements for fiscal and organizational performance.

So why the ban on expansion? Allen-McMillan said North Star had 981 vacancies in the 2020-2021 school year and didn’t need to add more seats. North Star officials said they have only about 300 empty seats this year and can’t fill those because the state will not allow them to reallocate openings in upper grades to lower grades where there is the most demand. Charter schools need state permission to expand in order to get financing for more classroom space.

North Star officials say this is the second year in a row that maximum approved enrollment has been used as a rationale for denial of expansion. They say that is not a proper indicator of demand. The state has denied nine of 23 charter expansion requests it has received in 2022, according to the state Education Department.

Murphy press secretary Alyana Alfaro Post was not specific when I asked why North Star was not allowed to grow. She said: “Charter schools are an important part of New Jersey’s education community. Each charter school application is considered on a case-by-case basis by which the DOE weighs a number of factors including community demand, existing enrollment, quality of education, and fiscal impact for the district as a whole.”

It appears Murphy is trying to appease teachers unions that want all local school districts to have the power to approve or disapprove charters, which could kill the charter movement. Even successful districts like Virginia’s Fairfax County and Maryland’s Montgomery County tend to oppose strong charter proposals out of fear the independently run schools would make their district schools look bad. States like Virginia that give districts power over charters have fewer charters than states that don’t, according to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

Allen-McMillan indicated in her letter that one reason she is blocking expansion of North Star and six other charters is because the Newark school board is against their adding seats. According to one Stanford University study, only about 25 percent of charters nationally produce significantly better academic results than regular public schools in their neighborhoods, but North Star is clearly in that group of top performers.

Barbara Martinez, spokeswoman for the Uncommon Schools network, which includes North Star, called the state’s complaint about vacancies “a red herring.” She said “it is entirely typical for a charter school to have more seats than are filled while it does the work of growing and finding new buildings.”

Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said, “We don’t usually see the denial of expansion, authorization and renewals in other states when a school is serving students well.” There are other cases, she said, where a denial is warranted because “a charter school is not meeting the goals laid out in its charter.”

Kyle Rosenkrans, executive director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, said Murphy has given the Newark schools superintendent “carte blanche to veto charter school growth . . . in what is arguably the highest performing urban charter sector in America.”

The governor seems puzzled by the criticism of his education commissioner’s decision. At a briefing he asked “why all of a sudden there’s this big buzz around our posture on charter schools.”

Maybe he hasn’t had time to look carefully at North Star’s numbers. These are complicated issues, but his state has managed to give North Star a chance to grow since teacher Jamey Verrilli and journalist Norman Atkins founded the school in 1997.

North Star is appealing the decision. I am sure the governor would be proud of the school’s teachers and students if he knew what they have done. Why tell great educators who have worked so hard that their school cannot help more kids?

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