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New Jersey blocks expansion of three Newark charter schools, continuing slowdown of charter growth

A school building has a blue sign on the top left corner that reads North Star in white lettering with a white star shape between the two words.

The state denied requests by North Star Academy and Philip’s Academy to further expand, saying that neither school has met its enrollment cap.

David Handschuh for Chalkbeat

Updated 2/9/22: New Jersey has blocked the expansion of three Newark charter schools — North Star Academy, Philip’s Academy, and Roseville Community Charter School — a sign that Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is continuing to take a harder line on charter school growth than his Republican predecessor.

On Tuesday, the state education commissioner rejected a request by North Star, Newark’s largest charter school operator to add 300 seats; previously, the state denied the operator’s application for 1,200 additional seats. She also denied Roseville’s request to add another grade level. And last week, the state turned down Philip’s Academy’s request to add grades 9-12, halting its plan to open a new high school.

The state has designated the schools run by North Star and Philip’s Academy as academically high-performing, and said each maintains a waitlist of families seeking admission. However, the commissioner questioned their need to expand, noting that neither operator has yet reached its maximum allowed enrollment. She also raised concerns about Philip’s Academy’s services for students still learning English, who make up just 3% of the school’s population.

Under the previous governor, Republican Chris Christie, charter schools spread at a rapid clip; in 2016, his administration allowed Newark charters to enroll up to 8,500 additional students. But Murphy, who came into office in 2018 and was reelected last year, has overseen a slowdown in charter growth. Last year, his administration stopped several Newark charter schools from expanding, and this school year it blocked nine charter schools across the state from adding seats out of 17 that asked to grow, according to a tally by the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association.

“These decisions are bad public policy and a crushing blow to low-income students of color throughout New Jersey,” said a statement Wednesday by the association’s president, Harry Lee.

During an unrelated press conference Monday, Murphy defended the decisions. He said the state granted renewals to all charter schools that were eligible this school year, which allows them to keep operating, and approved several expansions. He added that his administration does not favor traditional schools over charter schools.

“We’re not into labels,” he said. “We want to educate kids the very best way possible in America and that’s what we’re committed to.”

The state’s latest decisions likely will be welcomed by the Newark school district, whose superintendent asked the state to keep the Newark charter schools at their current enrollment levels. In letters to the state, district Superintendent Roger León said Newark charter schools will receive $300 million in public funding this school year, or about 28% of the district’s budget. He also said Philip’s Academy, which opened in 2013, serves a much smaller share of low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners than the district does.

“The data shows that PACS is not addressing the educational needs of Newark’s most vulnerable students,” he wrote.

Philip’s Academy, which educates about 580 students in grades K-8, received state approval nearly five years ago to open a high school. However, the school put those plans on hold while it worked to find building space and “refine” its educational program, according to the application it submitted to the state last October. The application said the operator was now ready to launch the high school in fall 2022.

In her Feb. 1 decision letter, Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan renewed Philip’s Academy’s charter, allowing it to operate through 2027. But the commissioner rejected its high school plans, saying the school failed to meet certain fiscal requirements, had not reached its current enrollment limit, and raised “moderate concerns” about the school’s compliance with rules regarding students still learning English.

“Over the next charter term, I expect PACS to implement strategies for compliance with all measures of the Fiscal and Organizational Performance Framework,” the commissioner wrote, referring to criteria the state uses to evaluate charter schools.

In an interview, Philip’s Academy Board of Trustees President Tammie Reid said she is confident that the school is in compliance with state laws and regulations, and that it seeks to collaborate with the Newark school district.

“We’re disappointed that we won’t get to extend our program,” she said. “But we’re also reenergized about our opportunity to really focus on our current program and think about ways to do that work even more effectively.” 

North Star Academy, which opened in 1997, is one of Newark’s oldest charter schools, among its top performing, and its largest, with about 5,900 students at more than a dozen campuses.

In her Feb. 8 decision letter, Allen-McMillan said North Star schools are academically high-achieving and the operator met all fiscal and operational requirements. However, she said North Star remains 981 students below its enrollment cap, which raises questions about “the necessity for expansion.”

In a statement, North Star spokesperson Barbara Martinez said the state “incorrectly presents” the schools’ enrollment numbers. The operator had asked for 300 additional seats beginning in fall 2025 based on plans to expand incrementally as the organization adds more teachers, programs, and buildings, she added.

“We are deeply disappointed by the Department of Education’s denial of our seat request,” the statement said. “A denial for a second year in a row is an affront to Newark families sitting on our waiting list year after year.”

Roseville, a small school serving grades K-4, applied to add a fifth grade and to increase its enrollment cap by 66 students to 396. In her Feb. 8 letter rejecting the request, the commissioner said the school was academically low-performing based on 2019 test scores, had not met its enrollment limit, and saw its waitlist shrink to just nine students last year, “which does not indicate strong demand for an expansion at this time.”

In an interview, Lee, the charter school association leader, said the state’s decision will stop charter schools from growing to meet demand from families, and disrupt the trajectory of Philip’s Academy students who had hoped to attend the planned high school. He added that charter schools often request additional seats for future years based on projected demand and building plans.

“It takes time for smart growth,” he said, adding that he expects some of the schools will appeal the commissioner’s decision. 

Critics say that charter schools should focus on enrolling more English learners and students with disabilities, rather than seeking to grow. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which filed a lawsuit challenging the former education commissioner’s decision to allow Newark charters to grow, said he supports the current commissioner’s move to pump the brakes.

“North Star has more than enough capacity to expand based on prior approvals,” he said in a statement, adding that he questions advocates’ claims about family demand for charter schools. “The Department of Education is on solid ground in rejecting any further expansion.”

Catherine Carrera contributed reporting.

Update: This story was updated to include the state’s decision regarding Roseville Community Charter School based on documents the education department provided after the story was published.

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