New Jersey state officials recently declined — for the third time — to give permission to a group that wanted to open a charter school that offered a Hebrew-language immersion program. Still, the school was awarded a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Education Department.

According to The Star-Ledger, U.S. education officials awarded the grant to a group called the Friends of Tikun Olam as part of a federal program to help charter schools open and operate.

Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton said it was “not unusual” for this particular grant program to award funds to schools that have not yet received permission to open. He said there are safeguards built into the grant that permit the department to stop schools from using the money if problems develop.

The application to open Tikun Olam in Highland Park, N.J., was controversial in the community that it intended to serve. It was opposed earlier this year by some parents, teachers and legislators who said the school was experimental and would take away public money from high-performing public schools in the area, the Star-Ledger reported.

The New Jersey Assembly in June passed a bill that would give communities the right to vote on whether new charter schools should be allowed to open; the state Senate has yet to vote on companion legislation.

The Obama administration has made opening new charter schools one of the key pillars of its school reform policies, using federal grants funds to help new ones open in states around the country.

In fiscal year 2011, the administration awarded some $255 million to help charter schools through several grant programs administered by the Charter Schools Program.

The charter school’s $200,000 grant was part of a total of $4,792,526 awarded by the U.S. Education Department to 23 new or recently opened charter school developers for planning, program design and initial implementation and the dissemination of information about successful charter school practices over the next three years, according to a release from the department.

In that release, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is quoted as saying: “High-quality charter schools have an important role to play in the overall strategy of successful school reform. These organizations have an opportunity to spread successful practices and expand effective public charter school choices for more students and parents.”

Duncan’s comments that these schools can “spread successful practices” and “expand effective” choices seems premature, given that the schools have no record of success. Charter school performance has wide variability, and there is no evidence to argue that most charter schools do a better job educating students than most traditional schools. We are funding experiments.

High-quality charter schools may indeed have a role to play in some areas of the country, but it seems fair to question how the department makes its choices in awarding millions of public dollars to unproven charter school operators — especially when “accountability” is the mantra of education reformers and budgets are tight.


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