Charter Schools Welcomed Here

Image by Susan Getgood, with permission

My family and I are making the big move to the New Jersey suburbs. With a two-and-a-half-year-old son anxious to play outside in the grass everyday and another baby on the way, like many urban families, we are leaving city apartment life for the house, the yard and the big mortgage and high tax bill. It IS New Jersey, after all.

With this move comes a repeat of the agonizing decision of where to send my son for school in the fall. I had a rude awakening last winter when, while talking to other moms, I discovered that getting your toddler into a pre-pre-pre-school in our area of Jersey City was tougher than getting into college. Women got on wait lists for area Montessori schools while they were still pregnant, while other schools required you to begin the application process about one-and-a-half years before your child would even be attending. These and other schools can cost anywhere from $7,000-$18,000 a year, on average; the latter of which I paid for my out-of-state college tuition from 1996-2000.

I got anxiety when talking to other moms last winter when they would ask where my son was enrolled. Uhhhnowhere?! Since when do kids go to school when they are two?! And since when do I need to get them what amounts to an interview – “observation,” that is – to get in?! Long story short, I picked a school other moms raved about in a less well-off part of town that cost half as much as schools in my neighborhood.

Making the move to the suburbs means not only do I have to go through that process again in a new town where I know no one to ask for recommendations, but making a move like this means we also have to take at least elementary, junior high schools – and even high schools – into account, if we plan on laying down any roots for an period of time. When you pay as much in property taxes as you do in New Jersey, you want to be sure you’re getting your money’s worth with the public schools.

But say, like many urban families, you choose to stick closer to the city for the shorter commute, more time with family, and, most likely, the smaller house and yard? Many areas closer to the city may not have public schools that appeal to you, or, if those public schools are exceptional, your child may have to be a literal rocket scientist to get in. And if you choose to send your child to private school, well, there goes what you were saving for college tuition.

That’s why I’m grateful that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and other state policymakers are so encouraging of charter schools in this state. I know I’ve said a dreaded phrase in some corners – “charter school” – but the fact is they provide an often-needed alternative to under-performing urban public schools.

The idea of allowing charters to set up shop in more well-off areas raises ire in some corners, but charter schools are predominantly located in urban areas where public schools are lacking. They provide a free – yes, FREE – alternative. Traditional public school advocates don’t like them because they argue they take money away from those public schools. The bottom line is: the money follows the child. If your school is not performing, that child’s parent should have every right to choose to send them to a school where they may receive a better education.

I have seen the benefit of charter schools. In full disclosure, my mother has been a principal of a charter school in New York for the past five years, and has worked closely with such schools in the New York City area for ten years. These kids come to school excited to learn, and the parents are hopeful that these schools can give their children an education they deserve, where students can thrive academically and where everyone is accountable for student learning.  This is an area where many other educational systems have failed and are not held to high expectations.

These charter schools, contrary to popular belief, also are held to a different standard than other public schools in many ways. If the state does it right, they are CLOSED DOWN if they fail to perform year after year, or if they do not accomplish the goals of their charter. Much of the educational reform that is just starting to take place now in district and city schools through “Race to the Top” initiatives and political pressures for teacher accountability, high expectations for students and data-driven instruction, have been part of the charter schools’ annual accountability plans for many years now. How well they have met these goals, along with school data on assessments and performance-driven evaluations, are submitted and reviewed each year.

Earlier this summer, New Jersey announced a new accountability system to set uniform standards as to how to evaluate charter schools. This yearly “Performance Framework” will study the academic achievement, financial performance, and governance of the state’s 86 charter schools. And the state has been shutting down under-performing and otherwise lacking charter schools. Plus, the state is being selective in exactly which charter applications it approves, and where – most being in urban areas –  where they are needed most.

New Jersey has great public schools, which is a benefit one gets for living – and paying taxes – in this state. But it’s comforting to know that an effort is being made to provide options in areas where traditional public schools are lacking.

It is my hope is that other states will follow suit so that all children – no matter what their family’s financial situation or what part of town they live in – can have the opportunity to attend the best public school possible.

Guest contributor Liza Porteus Viana is a journalist with more than 12 years of experience covering politics. She also covers business, intellectual property and homeland security for a number of media outlets, and is editor of genConnect.com. Like many other moms, she is always trying to find that oh-so-elusive work-life balance as a full-time freelancer with a toddler at home in New Jersey. She previously worked at FOXNews.com as a national and political correspondent, and National Journal as a technology policy writer in Washington, D.C., and her work has appeared in publications such as Worth Magazine, Portfolio, PoliticsDaily, The Huffington Post and Forward Magazine. Liza tweets at @lizapviana and is on Facebook. She also blogs at lizapviana.com.

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