New Jersey education officials had a dilemma last summer: Following the approval of a record number of charter schools, questions were flying about how closely the applications had been screened.
With more prospective charters lining up, acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, a former charter executive, bought in help - a move that proved controversial.
The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a Chicago nonprofit, had offered to fly in 14 consultants to lead Department of Education staff in the next approval round, looking toward overhauling the entire process.
What was particularly enticing was that the association could arrange funding through the Newark Charter School Fund, a nonprofit backed by the same philanthropies that support the association, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"The charter school office wasn't going in the right direction. You had the same people regulating charter schools regulating traditional schools," Cerf said. "I thought [the group] could help us."
The nonprofit, active in 41 states, including Pennsylvania, revised New Jersey's application process, pushing state officials to focus on in-depth reviews over bureaucratic checklists. In September, when the Christie administration announced its next round, the number of approvals was much lower.
But the group has become a lightning rod for parents and others resisting Gov. Christie's push to expand charters; they see a clear conflict of interest. At issue is the association's advocacy arm, which testifies on behalf of the charter industry and promotes legislation that would expand the number of U.S. charter schools.
Results of the latest review of applicants will be announced Tuesday.
"It's like hiring the fox to guard the henhouse," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which litigates on behalf of low-income schoolchildren. "What [New Jersey] seems to be doing is bringing foundations and other organizations that support their particular education reform agenda. I've never seen anything like this before."
Viewed within the education-reform movement as a "blue ribbon" brand dedicated to creating stricter standards, the association has a primary mission to advise agencies that authorize charter schools. The Philadelphia School District, one of its 160 members, brought in the group last year.
But the association also employs a Washington lobbying firm, primarily to push for more federal funds for charter-authorizing agencies.
And it works with the nonprofit American Legislative Exchange Council, founded in 1973 by a conservative political activist. The council gives corporations and think tanks access to its 2,000-plus state-legislator members. The groups are circulating legislation to remove control of charters from local school boards through creation of state charter-school commissions that would free school officials from "regulatory interference by other governmental agencies" - a position even some charter backers say could lead to corruption and more failing schools.
Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who has spent 14 years studying charter schools, described the association as a means for the industry to address criticism in the late 1990s that low-quality schools were opening.
"Their purpose is to ramp this up, and expand the charter-school movement," he said.
Greg Richmond, chief executive officer of the authorizers group, said advocacy is "a small part of what we do."
The group promotes what is essentially a keyhole system: Make it difficult to gain entry, but once in, give charters more freedom to operate than traditional public schools. Charters can impose, for instance, longer school days, creative curriculums, and nonunion work rules.
The association advocates to have reviews done "with integrity" and "holds the line on a process that can very easily get politicized," said Macke Raymond, head of Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "They're advocates on the right side of the river."
Until 2010, New Jersey Education Department staff reviewed charter applications, then made recommendations to the education commissioner, who has final say.
But that fall, the state recruited outside volunteers to do the reviews. The announcement in January 2011 that the department had approved 23 of more than 50 applicants represented a historic surge. New Jersey currently operates 80 charter schools.
Some approved were politically connected. The Black Ministers' Council, headed by the Rev. Reginald Jackson, which meets regularly with Christie, had five schools OKed. Edmond George, a partner with the Philadelphia law firm Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel, whose employees have donated more than $120,000 to state Democrats since 2000, had two approved.
The volunteer reviewers' names were kept secret until the American Civil Liberties Union sued for disclosure.
Many reviewers were drawn from the charter industry or advocated on its behalf. They included Derrell Bradford, then executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a nonprofit promoting charters, which spent $458,928 on advertising in 2010. The group is currently run by Jackson's wife.
Another reviewer was Keith Benson, who used to work for E3 and now serves on the board of Jackson's Community Charter School Collaborative, a nonprofit representing Black Ministers' Council schools.
Bradford said the reviews were objective.
"We were all vetted for conflicts," he said. "Rev. Jackson had a school in the application pool, and that was not given to me intentionally."
State Sen. Nia Gill (D., Essex), who has tried to pass a bill allowing school districts to block charters within their boundaries, said Christie's administration had not chosen reviewers who would look at applications critically.
"The process is not transparent, with no local control and very little public participation," Gill said. Charter schools "are a national movement backed by national money, and I wonder if we're allowing them to roll over us."
Cerf declined to comment on the January 2011 approvals. But he said the fact that in September - after the authorizers association was brought in - only four new charters were approved indicated a strict new standard would be applied.
With another round of approvals coming Tuesday - this time the state consulted with the association to recruit volunteer readers - the low rate of acceptance is expected to change.
"Typically when we run a process, the approval rates are around 30 percent," said William Haft, vice president of authorizer development at the association. "But we don't have a set approval rate."
Richmond founded the authorizers group in 2000 after a decade in the Chicago public school system, where he ran the charter office.
"We were working in a system where everyone . . . was trying to get everyone to do the same thing the same way," he said. "It is our belief the educators in the school know better than the people downtown."
The nonprofit came to wide attention in 2005, when it was called in to oversee the establishment of charters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In what has become an experiment for the national education-reform movement, 77 percent of schoolchildren there now attend charters.
Overall, reading and math scores are up, but there is debate whether that's because of the charters approved or because many struggling students didn't return to the city after Katrina, said Debra Vaughan, assistant research director at Tulane University's Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives.
"The charters' outcomes have been good," she said. But many people in the community "feel really disconnected from the process."
Similar sentiment has been voiced in New Jersey, particularly in affluent suburbs where charter schools have begun to make inroads.
Julia Sass Rubin, a parent and professor of public policy at Rutgers University, has organized rallies opposing charters through the advocacy group Save Our Schools.
"It really bugs me, these guys with no connection to New Jersey are coming in and telling the Legislature how to educate our kids," she said. "They have a vested interest in seeing more charter schools approved. How is that not conflict of interest?"
For decades, U.S. educational policy was largely determined locally, but since the early 2000s, decisions have increasingly been determined at the state and federal level, with nonprofits playing an increasing role, said Ross Danis, executive director of the nonprofit Newark Trust for Education, which works to improve education in that city.
"There's a small family of reformers in the country. And if you trace back, it's not six degrees of separation, it's probably two," he said. "It's not a movement with great diversity, and it's driven by a small group of benefactors.
"You can be very concerned about that if you don't support the agenda or really excited if you're for it."