If the Decision is Obvious, You’re Not Doing It Right

I’m a big supporter of charter schools as pre-k providers. I have a daily Google alert for “(pre-k OR prekindergarten) AND charter.” No one else really writes about charter schools and pre-k, so usually this Google alert sends me news about when and where a charter school is going to accept pre-k applications. Good information for parents, but not blog fodder.

Sometimes though, it’s exciting news. Like when Success Academy had a showdown over pre-k with Mayor de Blasio. Or yesterday, when my Google alert told me that a New Jersey charter school — the John P. Holland Charter School in Paterson — wasn’t allowed to open a pre-k program.

Often, charter schools’ pre-k applications are rejected for bureaucratic or logistical reasons, and in response I make the case again for policy reforms that get rid of those barriers. It’s all very clean because quality isn’t a consideration, and my support for charter pre-k remains unchallenged.

But this New Jersey situation is different — and much messier. It’s also a good time to remind everyone that supporting charter pre-k programs doesn’t mean blindly supporting all charters. Not all charter schools are high performing, and not all charters should offer pre-k. But in making decisions about what proposals to support and when, context is important. Let’s consider this specific case. On one hand, it seems like a clear decision. In the rejection letter, New Jersey’s education commissioner cited Holland’s probationary status. In 2014, the state put Holland on probation for issues related to “operation of the school’s board of trustees, lack of internal controls, and lack of documentation for the expenditure of school funds.” The state found that Holland’s five-person board was compromised: two members were employees of the school, and one was the principal’s sister. There were a few other suspect issues, like an “undocumented cash disbursement.”

But the decision is much more complicated when you consider the context. Between 2014 and the pre-k rejection this year, Holland addressed its issues and showed noteworthy improvement in academic performance. The state renewed Holland’s charter, congratulated the school on its academic achievements, and lifted the school’s probationary designation. It’s also worth noting that New Jersey has an unfortunate tendency of rejecting new pre-k providers, including charter schools, unless there’s unmet need in the region — even if the proposal is from a higher quality provider than those that currently exist.

The decision here isn’t obvious. And it shouldn’t be, unless you’re mindlessly pro- or anti-charter.