New Jersey Governor Heeds Parents’ Voices;
More Democrats Should Follow His Lead
By Tressa Pankovits
Maybe it’s because New Jersey voters support public charter schools by a 2:1 margin. Maybe it’s because of achievement data. Maybe he’s moderating his positions in advance of a potential presidential run. Or, maybe he’s finally listening to frustrated parents. Regardless, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy recently took a softer line on public charter schools by allowing 11 in his state to expand to accommodate wait-listed students. We applaud his decision and encourage other Democrats to follow his lead.
Charter schools are free, open enrollment public schools that operate outside of traditional school district bureaucracies. In many states, they are concentrated in cities where most parents cannot afford private school tuition if their assigned district school is lacking.
Parents love them because they generally get better results than district schools operating in poor, urban environments. For example, Camden is New Jersey’s poorest city by most measures. On the first state assessments since the pandemic began, 52.9% of Camden’s charter school students were meeting or approaching English Language Arts (ELA) state standards in the fall of 2021. On the same test, only 35.5% of traditional public school students met or approached the ELA standard. Math was even tougher for Camden’s students, but again, public charter school students outperformed their traditional school counterparts at 29.5% to just 13.7% in meeting or approaching state standards.
Camden isn’t an outlier. In Newark, Trenton, Patterson, and so on, charter school students in New Jersey’s largest cities are 32% more likely to approach or meet standards in ELA and 55% more likely to do so in math.
That’s why the New Jersey Department of Education’s (NJDOE) previous kibosh on charter school expansion is such a shame. Governor Murphy is on record that his office has “never, ever, ever been hell no charters,” but his administration’s previous expansion denials left about 20,000 charter school families in charter school waiting list purgatory.
In his first term, the administration denied nearly two-thirds of requested expansions. Last year, it denied 77% of seats requested by high quality, top performing charter schools, as categorized by the NJDOE’s own performance criteria. The denials affected seven schools, including Newark’s North Star Academy, which is one of the top performing charter schools in the country. North Star outperformed state averages by 15 points in ELA and eight points in math the year the NJDOE denied its expansion application.
That’s why this year’s decision, in which 11 public charter schools were given the green light to grow by a collective 2,299 seats, was such a pleasant surprise. Kyle Rosenkrans, executive director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation (NJCF), which promotes cooperation between Newark’s traditional and charter schools, called the governor’s shift on charter schools “stark.” This year, “the decisions are matching up to the quality of the applications, and that’s precisely how chartering is supposed to work,” Rosenkrans said.
Happily, North Star Academy and three other excellent public charters that were denied in previous years are among the eleven granted expansion rights this year. In all, the Murphy administration approved 78% of the new seats requested.
And, lest there be any confusion as to whether it’s Murphy or the NJDOE who is responsible for the about-face, Murphy gets the credit. New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association (NJPCSA) confirms that while the State Education Commissioner reviews expansion applications and makes recommendations, the governor personally signs off on those decisions.
We love to give Democrats credit when they are supportive of public charter schools and are responsive to parents’ voices. And, parents’ voices were strong in response to the administration’s previous denials. The NJPCSA helped organize frustrated moms and dads so that their voices could be heard. NJPCSA launched a #LetMyChildLearn campaign in response to the 2022 denials. In its first months alone, more than 4,000 community members sent nearly 17,000 email messages to the governor and his administration.
Parents who now have the chance to get their child out of a failing, perhaps dangerous traditional school and into a better-performing, nurturing public charter school probably don’t care about Governor Murphey’s motivation for his change of heart. And frankly, that’s not our main concern, either. We just hope he continues to allow more new charter school seats that low-income, parents of color desperately seek for their offspring. And we hope more Democrats will take courage from him from his recent bold move.
However, we are reminded that Governor Murphy served as Barack Obama’s Ambassador to Germany. President Obama, deeply admired by so many in the Democratic establishment, was a huge friend to public charter schools.
So, we are right there with NJCF’s Rosenkrans, who observed, “Politically, my hope is that Murphy is reexamining the Obama sort of political playbook that said public charter schools can play an important role in prominent progressive, Democratic leaders’ educational strategy because they’re serving low-income families of color and those families are a key part of the Democratic coalition.”
If that is the case, Governor Murphy, whether he ever does run for president in the future or not, can at least lead his party back from the wilderness on public charter schools.
Tressa Pankovits is the Co-Director of the Reinventing America’s School Project at the Progressive Policy Institute.