Definitions

As we discuss options for failing schools, it is necessary to define some important terms. Many are used and understood only within academic circles, and some are widely used but without clear or complete understanding. The details are important as we seek to engage a broad spectrum of citizens in seeking solutions to the difficult issues confronting educators in New Jersey.

Charter Schools

Charter Schools are public schools. In New Jersey, they are financed from local property taxes at a rate of 90 percent of the local district’s operating budget, but without factoring in capital expenses. Until a few years ago, no state monies were available for property, buildings, or other capital costs of charter schools. Twelve years ago, for example, at Princeton Charter School, the initial building was purchased from the Gallup organization with bank loans, guaranteed by founding parents. Mortgage payments for the original and recent additions are still a substantial share of PCS’s budget. More recently, NJ has allocated up to 200k for charter startups, but those funds are now being cut.

Because charters are public schools directly under the supervision of the State Department of Education, they must adhere to all regulations for student safety, suspensions, teacher and administrator certification, etc. Admission is open to all students in the local district; no tests or other barriers are permissible except, of course, the availability of places. As public schools, charter may not charge tuition. They are however, free to choose their own board, and set their own curricula subject to review and approval of the SDE. Charter students must take the annual statewide tests; if their test scores do not show academic improvement, their school is placed on probation and if they don’t improve, they are closed. This has been the fate of most of the original charters in Trenton. Unfortunately, the same accountability is not required of schools in the local system.

There’s nothing magic about charter schools: some are good, some are awful. The majority that succeed in raising student achievement have two characteristics: they develop a set of rules for behavior in school and for homework; the rules are discussed with prospective parents and students. Nearly all parents are ecstatic at the prospects, and in many schools, sign an agreement to monitor student grades and homework, to stay in touch with teachers, and to respond to calls about any problems with their kids. Secondly, they adjust their content and teaching methods to kids who come to them with severe deficiencies in language skills and math. (Most charters are middle/high schools.)

If charters are so great, why do they generate considerable opposition? Relatively few charters’ faculties are unionized, so the AFT and NJEA’s opposition is understandable. In fact, the AFT has opened a few charters of its own, partly to demonstrate that union teachers can successfully operate under charter rules. But I believe that the antipathy of the public school establishment, including most schools of education, is rooted in the loss of control over charter funds and the implicit criticism evidenced by long waiting lists of parents trying to escape failing inner-city schools.

Vouchers

Vouchers allow students to enroll in schools other than those to which the district has assigned them. The voucher is a transfer of funds that accompanies the student to his/her new school. That may be another public school, within or outside the student’s current district. Or, the promise of payment may go to an independent school as partial payment of tuition. We know of no voucher plan that allows more than $9,000 per student, so independent schools heavily subsidize the students they accept.

Vouchers are opposed by most public school officials, and bitterly criticized by the two unions. The argument becomes more complex when a voucher law permits transfer to religiously-governed schools. Some urban communities like Milwaukee and Cleveland continue to have such an arrangement. The legal history of vouchers for non-public schools is checkered; invariably, they are challenged in state courts and a number of them have been ruled unconstitutional.

Choice

As a matter of principle, allowing parents to choose their children’s schools seems reasonable as long as the students’ and society’s legitimate interests are safeguarded. In most other western democracies, including Canada, the government subsidizes religiously-operated schools, subject to strict regulations and inspections by state authorities. But our laws derive both from our founding fathers rejection of mingling church and state, and the wave of anti-Catholicism in the late 18th-early 19th century, (when parochial schools were established), that led to the enactment of the so-called Blaine amendments to many state constitutions.

Blaine amendments are provisions that prohibit the use of tax funds for “sectarian schools. ” The wording is far more explicit than that of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. James Blaine was Speaker of the U.S. House in 1875. The amendment he proposed passed the House, but failed by four votes in the Senate. However, the amendment was adopted in 37 state legislatures. Blaine’s amendment voiced the strong nativist, anti-Catholic feeling in American politics during the post-Civil War period.

Special terms and definitions found in education literature

Core Knowledge Curriculum: carefully sequenced knowledge and skills organized by subject and grade level that provides factual context for further learning in elementary and middle schools.

Differentiated Instruction: curriculum content and teaching strategies adjusted to diagnosed needs of individual and groups of students.

Formative Evaluation: The use of assessment results for advising and supporting student learning, or to modify lesson plans.

Summative Evaluation: A judgment based on the assessment of the overall performance of a program or individual students. The evaluation must be sufficiently valid and reliable to permit decisions about curriculum or student performance.

Free/Reduced Fee Lunch: A criterion for identifying need levels. In this usage it signifies families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level.


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