The issue of charter schools has become controversial in New Jersey and throughout the country with many both for and against the educational institutions. The latest school board to oppose charter schools in the Garden State is Florence Township in Burlington County. Education officials said having a charter school in town could bankrupt the public school district. New Jersey Charter Schools Association President and CEO Carlos Perez told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that charter schools offer high quality education for students and research has found traditional public schools in the same area also succeed when charter schools move in. He admitted that some charter schools are not performing as well as others and said his organization plans to investigate ways to improve.
Perez said independent studies have found successes with charter schools. “We’re also finding in many communities where there are charter schools the district schools are not taking any steps backwards. In fact in those areas, all kids in all public schools are succeeding,” he said.
While officials are worried about the cost, Perez said performance must be part of the conversation. “It all has to be tied together because at the end of the day if the schools are educating children — charter schools or district public schools — that’s what ultimately matters,” he said. “When a charter school opens in a community, sure there’s fears around finances, but at the end of the day are all schools able to effectively serve kids? That’s what we need to be evaluating.”
In the past year, more students have been enrolling in charter schools, according to Perez. He said 30,000 children are enrolled in charter schools throughout New Jersey and about 20,000 are on waiting lists. “It’s still a small fraction of the overall public education but parents are starting to demand more and more high quality education opportunities,” he said.
The vast majority of students in charter schools — 90 percent — come from urban areas, according to Perez. The majority on the waiting lists are also from urban settings. “Newark, Jersey City, Camden, Trenton, Paterson — all these areas have successful charter schools and they all have long wait lists,” he explained.
Some have criticized the differences in quality among charter schools. Perez said there are some charter schools that do very well and others that don’t. “We see that there are some very, very well performing schools so we need to learn from those well performing schools and understand what’s making them successful,” he said. “We have to make sure that we’re looking at those low performing schools … if they’re not producing, if they’re not providing the right education for kids and there’s no clear path to improving the education there, the charter promise says those schools ought to be closed down for under-performance. And we as a charter school community have to stand behind that promise.”
Facilities issues also plague charter schools. “We’re finding that most of our charter schools are in outdated, old facilities — leaky roofs, no air conditioning for some of our year-round schools, inadequate heat in the wintertime, half are gymatoriums where we have a cafeteria, gym and auditorium all in one.”
Despite poor building conditions, charter schools are performing well, according to Perez, but he said he wants to make sure charter schools have enough resources so there can be equitable facilities access to traditional public schools. “Not a penny of state money goes to charter school facilities and we need to encourage that,” he said.