by Peter Dickson

We are hearing a lot these days about two big subjects in education: charter schools and “closing the achievement gap” between schools in more affluent communities and schools in inner cities and poorer rural districts. What we are not hearing is these two subjects being discussed together.

In 2004, then State Senator Robert Martin published a comprehensively researched law review article that concluded that New Jersey’s charter schools were systematically avoiding enrollment of economically disadvantaged and special education children. This practice seems to continue today, with some charter schools engaging in “cherry-picking” and others offering more of a boutique-style education, such as a recent proposed charter school that would specialize in Chinese language immersion. Still others are offering “virtual education,” a concept akin to state-sponsored home schooling.

These are not the best uses of charter schools. For those parents and students who want it, home schooling or a Chinese language immersion program has ample merit, but it is certainly a questionable use of increasingly scarce taxpayer dollars.

As a result of these persistent problems and a lack of focus in the charter school movement, charter schools are not making enough of a meaningful contribution to providing the Constitutionally required “thorough and efficient” public education to those who aren’t getting it under the current system. In particular, they are as a whole failing to address in a meaningful way the achievement gap. Whatever else charter schools should be doing, meeting this Constitutional obligation where it is not currently met should be the highest priority.

An overriding objective of allowing the use of public funds for charter schools was that they would offer new and innovative approaches to educational problems that public schools were not solving. The intention was that a competitive alternative would act to spur the public schools to improve their performance. A “cherry-picking” approach to enrollment does little or nothing to advance this objective. Since public schools don’t offer immersion Chinese programs, a charter school with that mission accomplishes nothing by way of competition. The same is true of home schooling and virtual education.

Admission to charter schools is supposed to be by lottery. But cherry-picking is easy even in a supposed lottery admissions process. The charter leadership simply tells the less attractive students something like “our school isn’t really set up to handle students like you” while telling the better students “you get a superior education here, just look at our test scores,” which are based on prior cherry-picking successes.

Needless to say, no inner city school district has any need or desire for a Chinese language immersion school, nor would such a school do anything to close the basic achievement gap in language arts and math. Home schooling in broken or two-earner inner city families is a distant dream.

The statute that authorizes charter schools says they are to “assist in promoting comprehensive educational reform.” The large majority of New Jersey school districts do a good job (or better, sometimes much better) and really do not cry out for charter school alternatives. We should be focusing on the districts with the hard cases: the economically disadvantaged, the English as a second language, and the special education students.

The few schools that do specialize in the hard cases have not received proper support and encouragement from the state. Perhaps this is changing, but the jury is still out. Last year New Jersey applied for and this year received a waiver from federal “No Child Left Behind” requirements. According to the waiver application, the Department of Education is “undergoing a fundamental shift from a system of oversight and monitoring to service delivery and support.” These support services are to be offered by seven “Regional Achievement Centers,” but it is hard to see how seven offices can effectively address deep-rooted and persistent educational under-achievement. Skeptics see bureaucratic layers and paperwork.

We also hear a lot of talk these days about individual responsibility and the need to make wise choices. Well, here’s one way of thinking about that.

An 11th grader at a failing inner city school and an 11th grader at a wealthy suburban school were born with no differences to speak of. They were equals in every important respect. What happened since then? The suburban student made a smart choice: she “chose” the right parents. The inner city student “chose” the wrong parents. Neither one will ever make a more consequential decision in her lifetime. Obviously, these are not real choices, but what philosopher John Rawls called accidents of birth.

Charter schools have an important role to play, but they are not doing enough, and the state is not doing enough to promote and support this role for charter schools.

Peter Dickson is a partner at the law firm of Potter and Dickson in Princeton and represents the Emily Fisher Charter School, which has been ordered closed by the Department of Education. These views are his own.

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