By Sean Scarborough
Creation of a charter school in New Jersey is no easy task, evident from the stories told over the years by founders of the 73 charter schools now open in the state, as well as the many other organizers whose proposed schools never got off the ground.
Many would be surprised to know the paramount challenge in building a successful charter school in New Jersey has nothing to do with the curriculum, student and faculty recruitment or lingering distrust from the local public schools.
The problem has been the financing and construction of a long-term facility that can accommodate a 21st century curriculum. Land costs in New Jersey are astronomical, while construction prices with a reputable builder are often daunting for even the most aggressive charter school fundraiser.
New Jersey needs to create a funding mechanism that levels the playing field between traditional public schools and charter schools, which have been coping with an inherent disadvantage since they first opened in the state in 1997.
If a local Board of Education is interested in building or expanding a school, the process is simple. There is a special election for voters to approve the issuing of a tax-exempt bond. Taxpayers then pay back the bond over a number of years. The funds are incorporated in the overall property tax bill; most taxpayers don’t even know or recall what the long-term debt is for.
Charter schools, now serving 26,000 students in New Jersey, are not allowed to issue tax-exempt bonds. There are no provisions in state law for charter schools to get funding for school construction. Most operators have no choice but to pull critical dollars from the operating budget to fund facility costs, hampering the efforts to fulfill the unique purpose of the charter school.
There are two other key issues that charter schools face:
· Getting a loan. Charter schools are on a short leash; the state Department of Education can pull a charter on an annual basis. Charter schools that demonstrate acceptable performance over a three-year period should then be given a 10-year renewal period. This would remove a political uncertainty.
· Lack of real estate expertise. Charter school organizers are educators and visionaries, not real estate developers. Development of real estate, particularly in land-constrained New Jersey, is a professional service and a professional developer is no different than an orthopedic surgeon or a constitutional lawyer. Charter schools require professional guidance if they are to avoid the common pitfalls of real estate development.
It seems the issue in New Jersey has reached a boiling point.
Noting 104,000 students are enrolled in 205 chronically failing schools, Gov. Chris Christie is pushing for the state to have more than 100 charter schools by 2014. The demand is clear, he said, noting there are more than 11,000 students on charter school waiting lists across New Jersey.
Christie says he wants to remove hurdles and roadblocks to expanding and growing high-quality charter schools, empowering parents with greater choice and providing flexibility for charter schools. But there appears to be no solution to make it easier for charter schools to secure the proper facilities.
The Governor should start new charter schools off on a probationary period for three years. After a school demonstrates its success in the areas of student, teacher and fiscal performance, as well as fulfilling a demonstrated need in the community, it should not have to undergo a state review for 10 years.
Christie must also incentivize banks, while protecting the state from cost overruns. One proven method provides a state guarantee of charter school debt after a school is complete. This shifts the burden of construction performance and cost containment to the charter school board. They blow the budget? They lose the school.
People within the charter school community have proven themselves to be resourceful and committed. If the state gives them a clear and certain path to success, New Jersey will be rewarded as home to the greatest education reform in America.
Sean Scarborough is President of Scarborough Properties of Gibbsboro.
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