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Opinion: Cutting the Clutter About Online Charter Schools

Arguments about virtual charters seem to be more about territory than education.

By Laura Waters

[Laura Waters has been president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County for six years. She also blogs about New Jersey education policy and politics at NJLeftBehind.com. A former instructor at SUNY Binghamton in a program that served educationally disadvantaged students from New York's inner cities, she holds a Ph.D. in early American literature from Binghamton.]

There’s a ruckus at the New Jersey Department of Education.

New Jersey's charter school legislation is 17 years old, dating back to the dawn of the Internet era. It's showing its age. Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf believes he can use DOE-issued regulations to bring the law up to date. But others think he’s arrogantly bypassing the legislative process.

More offensive to certain lobbying groups, primarily the NJEA and Education Law Center (ELC), the most recent draft of these proposed regulations would remove the requirement that charters serve “contiguous school districts” and implicitly allow the establishment of online charter schools.

In a July 24 letter to Cerf, the lobbyists warn that “the Legislature has not authorized blended online programs that feature a prominent online component nor has the Legislature prescribed a percentage of online instruction that is acceptable in a blended or hybrid program." The complaint also alleges that two approved charter schools in Newark “appear to be online virtual charter schools with the veneer of a traditional bricks and mortar charter schools to mask their true nature.”

Let's cut through all this noise -- including exchanges about the reputation of one of the charter providers (K12) -- and confront the specter of online learning straight on: both fulltime and hybrid (blended).

Nationally, 40 states have passed online learning policies and 30 states and D.C. have created virtual schools. A relatively new group, iNACOL, (International Association for K-12 Online Learning) just released its five Principles for Model Legislation in States.

As goes the country, so goes New Jersey. Explains Dr. Roy Montesano of Ramsey Public Schools, the state's 2012 Superintendent of the Year, “A hybrid model is where education is headed, and we need to stay on top of that as educators. In order to be successful, we need to look beyond our walls for ways to offer what can’t be accomplished in house.”

More and more New Jersey students are going out of house and online. Forty-three public high schools -- 11 percent -- participate in the Virtual High School Global Consortium. 

Continue reading on NJSpotlight.com.

NJ Spotlight is an issue-driven news website that provides critical insight to New Jersey’s communities and businesses. It is non-partisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.

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Joe R August 13, 2012 at 03:08 PM
Talk about lobbying groups, Cerf and Christie are active lobbyists for charter schools and school vouchers. The difference is that they get a lot of free advertising for their school privatization propaganda campaign on Fox News, NJ 101.5 and the clueless mainstream media that simply loves, adores and worships charter schools. In fact, Christie was a lobbyist for Edison Schools when Cerf was an executive at that private for profit charter school company which was a flop. What about all the pro charter lobbying groups that are well funded by such billionaires as Gates, Broad, the Waltons, the Dells, assorted hedge fund managers and the DeVos family.
Joe R August 13, 2012 at 05:26 PM
Talk about lobbying groups - - - all the big money is on the side that wants to privatize education but with tax payer money. The pro charter groups are throwing millions at Michelle Rhee and all her phoney baloney front organizations. 50CAN is a pro charter school advocacy group partly funded by millionaire Jonathan Sackler, along with the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Another advocacy organization, E3 — Educational Excellence for Everyone — lists David Hespe, chief of staff to Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, as a member of its governing board. Other groups that lobby for charter schools, virtual charter schools and school vouchers are the KIPP Foundation and the anti-union lobbying shop B4K. Derrell Bradford, Executive Director of Better Education for Kids, Inc. (B4NJKids funded through two billionaires, David Tepper and Alan Fournier). Millionaire Joel Klein who works for Rupert Murdoch (Fox News) is another big advocate for charter schools and school vouchers. This is not even a complete list of all the billionaires trying to privatize our school system.
Abby Normal August 13, 2012 at 09:40 PM
"As goes the country, so goes New Jersey." Really? If the rest of the country went back to using slate and chalk for student work, NJ would follow? I think not. That is not what the great schools in NJ were built upon. NJ is smarter than that. There is a reason NJ schools do so well when compared nationally and even internationally and that's because we do NOT just follow the pack; otherwise we'd rank somewhere midrange.
Financialbarbie August 13, 2012 at 10:01 PM
I am so curious why there are so many of you pontificating against Charter Schools and those that support and invest in them. How can you with a straight face think you know better than the most visionariy and philanthropic people of our generation like Bill and Melinda Gates, The Waltons, and Jonathan Sackler among others? These individuals care about our Children's future!!! They also realize what is obviously lost on you, that the status quo, our failing public school system needs serious reform. It is about time somebody stands up for change advocates for our children and their future! This unstoppable Charter School movement is the only glimmer of hope in a very dark future of our failing educational system. It seems so ignorant to make derogatory comments about Michelle Rhee, KIPP, and Billionaires in general....Seriously, what is the alternative? Our current system is a PROVEN, dismal failure to our children and our country. When 4000 parents show up to a lottery, hoping their child will be 1 of the 425 students given a chance to attend their new local charter school, it is obvious to everyone except you dinosaurs, under-performing tenured teachers and union bosses, that we not only WANT change..., but we NEED change! Get with the program! "Waiting for Superman" should be required viewing for every American as we approach this important election year.
Joe R August 13, 2012 at 10:28 PM
NJ schools are not failing, in fact NJ schools are top rated, always rank in the top tier and rate number one in some areas such as graduation rates. US schools are not failing, schools in the affluent well funded districts are just as good as the high ranked foreign schools, like Finland's. By the way, Finland and the other high performing countries are doing nothing like what we are doing in the US such as charter schools, virtual charter schools and school vouchers. Over 21% of US kids live in poverty while about 5% of Finnish kids live in poverty. Poverty is not an excuse to do nothing but poverty does affect our overall results.
Joe R August 13, 2012 at 10:34 PM
Our NAEP scores have been steadily rising over the decades, for all racial and ethnic groups. Yes, that's right, NAEP scores have been rising, so do not believe the lies of the charter schools advocates who are CONSTANTLY demeaning, demonizing the traditional public schools. What about our failing charter schools and the charter school status quo? Schools in poor urban and rural areas are having problems but you don't solve problems by slashing school funding, firing teachers to save money and cutting music, art and PE programs. The billionaires mentioned above have never taught (except for Rhee and she's not a billionaire), are not educational scholars and really know nothing about public education. That horrible disgusting film, "Waiting for Superman," is an anti-union, anti-traditional public school screed; it's propaganda. There is an all out war against traditional public schools and public school teachers. Belonging to a union has practically become a felony in this country punishable by life in prison. It's OK to make derogatory comments about traditional public schools, their teachers and their unions but it's a sin to criticize Queen Rhee and King Gates. According to financialbarbie, we have to bow down and kiss the feet of the top 1%, they are rich, so that automatically makes them educational experts.
Abby Normal August 13, 2012 at 10:40 PM
"Waiting for Superman" has absolutely no basis in sound educational policy or teaching practices; it will go down as one of the biggest pieces of propaganda in history. If you want to see what they left out of that movie, I suggest you watch http://vimeo.com/41994760 "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman." Some of our country's best educators are featured, something that is otherwise completely ignored. As for the smoke and mirrors Rhee, she's a study in contradiction. However if you choose to ignore the research that shows perhaps 17% of charter schools are actually better than their public counter parts, and if you also rather ignore the fact that 92% of NJ's public schools out perform all states, except for Massachusetts, and if you'd also rather ignore the fact that weak union states (and right-to-work) have lower educational outcomes than stronger unionized states, then there is nothing anyone can say. Our system is not a proven failure. What is a proven failure is our response to those living in poverty and how politicians have addressed it. With 92% of NJ schools performing so well, why are so many cheering for their destruction for a model that is not proven? The ed-corps are salivating for their share of the banquet. Charter Schools: -do not serve the neediest students, ESL & special education -are not accountable to their community or local BOE -have highly paid superintendents, above the cap -self select to keep the best students
Financialbarbie August 14, 2012 at 12:23 AM
As for tenure, besides being a Supreme Court Justice, what other career path gives a person a lifelong appointment regardless of performance??? That is a joke. If we could eliminate tenure, we would be able to increase salaries for top performing teachers, fire ineffective teachers and in the long run begin to make teaching the admirable profession it once was. If we want America's best and brightest to consider careers as educators, salaries must become more competitive with the business world. We spend millions of dollars annually on bad teachers. It's time to reallocate those funds to those that produce meaningful results.
Financialbarbie August 14, 2012 at 12:25 AM
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I am a product of NJ public schools and went on to an Ivy League Education as a result of the great teachers I had in public schools. I am not against public schools. But clearly there is need for serious reform. Camden schools only represent 1% of NJ schools but they account for 33% Of the lowest performing schools across the state. There needs to be an intervention. These kids need radical reform to stop the generational cycle of failure. Their failure is our failure and it effects our society. .
Financialbarbie August 14, 2012 at 12:26 AM
We need to stop blaming public vs. charter... There are good and bad in both camps...and start taking action or we all lose. It is clear that many charter schools have something that sets them apart from the pack. And it is not only magnet schools that pist superior test scores.... Many inter-city charters are changing lives of young people that would otherwise get lost in the system. These would be drop-out's don't wind up on "The Shark Tank" or become billionaire rappers.... They end up dealing or minimally doing drugs, joining gangs, or stealing from local businesses and many wind up in jail where it costs tax payers over $30,000 per year. They have no drive, no self- esteem... No realistic dream. Radical change will require radical reforms. If may require pulling kids out of their homes and neighborhoods in 1st grade and boarding them in school dorms where they can be built up, loved on and instilled with the American Dream. We have to start somewhere
Abby Normal August 14, 2012 at 12:49 AM
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenure_%28academic%29 : Tenure commonly refers to life tenure in a job and specifically to a senior academic's contractual right not to have his or her position terminated without just cause. It seems the problem people have with tenure is that the administrators and supervisors responsible for doing their job of proper evaluation and follow up have dropped the ball. They do not do the required paperwork and evidence gathering necessary to bring up an individual on tenure charges. Further, in many instances, it is the nepotism and cronyism rampant in schools that stops these same supervisors and administrators from giving accurate evaluations and gathering evidence... starting a paper trail. This is NOT the fault of the teachers or the teacher's union. Now one can argue that all public sector jobs must release all relationships to prove lack of cronyism or nepotism, but that'll never happen because it's a favorite tool of all politicians... and yes, especially Christie. The signed reform was needed to streamline the process but again, it's only as good as the evaluation and evaluators who, in most cases, are products of nepotism themselves.
Abby Normal August 14, 2012 at 12:54 AM
By the way, where is your research proving that millions are spent annually on "bad" teachers? What is the criteria for a "bad" teacher? How many "bad" teachers are there? The "bad teacher" meme is a faceless and baseless scapegoat. This is a talking point that seeks to hurt the VAST majority of teachers for the sake of "getting" a few ineffective ones out. Yes, there should be zero ineffective teachers, but why isn't anyone reforming the administrators and supervisors who can easily pluck them out, instead of putting 99% of the teachers on the sacrificial block to get at them?
Joe R August 14, 2012 at 12:56 AM
Princeton, South Brunswick and West Windsor schools get top marks, that's with teacher unions and tenure. Camden schools have monumental problems, Camden the city has monumental problems, such as one of the highest poverty rates in America, high unemployment and a very high crime rate. So let's blame the teachers and tenure???? Tenure has been around for more than 100 years, it's not to blame for Camden's or Newark's educational problems. Tenure is just due process, if not for tenure they would be getting rid of the older teachers. Why the heck doesn't Bill Gates spend his billions on pre school centers, nursery schools for working mothers, free health care, vision and dental clinics in these high poverty areas. Schools don't exist in a vacuum and can't be expected to cure all the social ills and problems in a given school district. The Camden teachers may be doing a heroic effort to educate the children but are being slammed because they have not worked miracles that no one would be able to perform under the circumstances, such as crowded classrooms and decaying school buildings. As it stands, I don't get to vote whether a charter school is located in my district, I don't get to vote on the charter school budget, I don't get to vote for the charter school board of directors. Cerf decides if and where a charter school will be located without any input from the community which foots the bill for the charter school.
Abby Normal August 14, 2012 at 01:06 AM
The problem I have with the "house is on fire! Do something now! Anything!!" call to education reform is that those things being proposed are causing more harm than good. There is clear research proving that statement. However the one element that galls me the most, as a graduate of a great public state college, is that the proposed reforms will only help some. Justice for some, not for all. How is that? Charters, vouchers, scholarships, whatever, will only help a very small segment of the population in most need of help. Here is what's needed and proven out by research: small class sizes, arts education, extra-curricular activities, less dependence on testing, teacher autonomy, and parental accountability, the exact same education that our billionaire reformers have for their own children. Yet they promote what's "good for thee but not for me." I don't buy it and neither should you. Yes, lets talk to real educators what works and what doesn't. Lets look at "the best" and make it our model for ALL of those students needing it in our poorest areas. When that is done, then I'll know we are serious about education reform in those parts of our state. But seriously, that won't happen, we both know that. In the mean time the billionaire boy's club will promote those things that make money off the backs of our poorest. When they fail, like the state has, and they will, then what?
Joe R August 14, 2012 at 02:44 AM
Oh no, here we go again, another anti-teacher anti-union propaganda film, “Won’t Back Down:" As Parents Across America explains: But the storyline about the parent takeover has no resemblance to reality, says New York parent activist Leonie Haimson, a PAA co-founder. “The movie is supposedly based on a process called the ‘parent trigger,’ which purports to empower parents. But actually, the ‘parent trigger’ has a track record of 100 percent failure, and has pitted parents against parents and torn apart school communities at the two schools where it has been tried,” said Haimson. She points out that “Won’t Back Down” was produced by Walden Media, owned by conservative mogul Philip Anschutz, a major donor to anti-gay, creationist and other right-wing causes. Walden Media was the co-producer of the 2010 anti-public-education pseudo-documentary ‘Waiting for ‘Superman’.” From jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com: ["Teachers Rock 2012" is a promotional scheme for the upcoming anti-teacher movie, Won't Back Down.] "Teachers Rock 2012" is sponsored by Walmart, the retailer owned by the Walton family. The Walton Family Foundation gave out $159 million in support of charter schools and vouchers, neither of which have been shown to improve achievement when accounting for student characteristics. Walmart is one of the most anti-union corporations in America and the Walton Family promotes an anti-union, democracy distorting agenda.

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