Kindergartners spun around in hula hoops and chased each other across a gym floor at Camden's Pride Charter School this week, a joyful explosion of energy as recess began.

Most of them likely will stay with the charter network until they graduate from high school, predicts Superintendent Joe Conway. Demand has grown at his Camden's Promise network, which enrolls 2,000 students, up from 100 sixth graders in 1998.

But Conway and other charter operators are concerned about what their future holds under the Gov. Murphy administration.

During his campaign, Murphy called for a "time out" on charter expansion — something about which his predecessor, Chris Christie, was bullish. Murphy has expressed reservations about how the schools, which are privately run but funded with tax dollars, are approved and operated. His transition team has recommended a "pause" on new approvals.

"There's some nuances on what a pause means that we're hoping to hear," Conway said. "I think there's definitely room for all of these great schools. It's just a matter of how we can all play in the same sandbox."

That sandbox has at times seemed more like a boxing ring. Charter schools long have been a subject of contention and political crossfire in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and across the nation. Advocates say the schools provide more room for innovation and offer a place for pupils in low-performing districts who can't afford private schools.

Critics counter that the focus should be on improving traditional public schools, and that charters don't necessarily outperform or serve the same demographic of students as other schools in their districts.

They also hold up a financial reality: School districts lose money as charters gain students.

The politics have grown ever more complicated. With controversy over school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos' selection as U.S. secretary of education, "charters have been kind of wrapped up in school choice and vouchers and associated with the Trump administration. Especially in blue states and cities that tend to be Democrat-oriented, that adds to the politics," said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.

And in New Jersey, the political landscape has shifted significantly. While Christie, a Republican and charter-school proponent, frequently battled with teachers' unions, Murphy, a Democrat, named leaders of the New Jersey Education Association and American Federation of Teachers New Jersey among the cochairs of his education transition committee.

"We … need to make sure we're not continually taking money out of the traditional neighborhood public schools, robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Donna Chiera, president of AFT New Jersey. The NJEA, the state's largest teachers' union, supports a moratorium on new charter schools, saying the state should review its law and whether charters are sharing strategies with school districts.

Of the recommendation to pause charter growth, "I do expect at some point he's going to do that," NJEA president Marie Blistan said of Murphy.

Murphy, who took office Jan. 16, has not yet detailed his plans for charter schools. His nominee for education commissioner, Asbury Park Superintendent Lamont Repollet, has served on the board of a Newark charter school.

“The governor is committed to ensuring that all charter schools, like all district schools, are high-performing and held to the same standards of accountability,” Murphy spokesman Dan Bryan said in a statement this week. “He supports high-performing schools and a public education system that provides clear pathways to life success, service to community, and productive work.” 

He did not respond to questions on whether Murphy would seek to pause charter-school expansion.

Murphy has said he questions the approval process for charter schools, demographic disparities between schools, and local input regarding charters. In New Jersey, the state alone has authority over charter approvals.

The governor has said he wanted to address charters “in a smarter way” than Christie’s administration: “Let’s figure out what the facts are, let’s get a level playing field, and let’s go from there.”

Promoting himself as a charter-school supporter, Christie had said parents should be able to "vote with their feet" and accused teachers' unions of opposing charter expansion to preserve their own interests. Charter-school enrollment more than doubled during his tenure, from 21,687 in 2009-10 to 49,100 this year. The state has authorized more than 56,000 seats at charter schools.

Nationally, charter-school growth has slowed in recent years. Public support for charter schools dropped 12 points between 2016 and 2017, from 51 percent to 39 percent, according to a national Education Next poll that concluded Trump's support for charters didn't seem to be the reason for the decline.

Yet advocates say there is still more demand for charter schools, including in New Jersey. Nicole Cole, president and CEO of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, said there are 35,000 students on charter waiting lists, based on information submitted by schools to the state.

Superintendent Joe Conway outside Camden’s Promise Charter School, which has grown from 100 students in 1998 to 2,000 today.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Superintendent Joe Conway outside Camden’s Promise Charter School, which has grown from 100 students in 1998 to 2,000 today.

Cole said she was hopeful about Murphy's "commitment to access and opportunity," because "we view charter schools as a social justice issue." But the transition team's recommendation to pause charter expansion was a concern, she said.

"We would argue that any type of pause takes away time from being in a high-quality school. We can't give that child back time," Cole said. The state's standards are already high, she said, noting that Christie's administration had regularly closed schools.

Only about 3 percent of New Jersey students attend charter schools. But the schools have a significant presence in some of the state's urban areas. In Newark, where charters serve about 35 percent of students, the state is about to turn the school district back over to local control.

In Camden, most students don't attend traditional public schools. About 6,800 students attend district-run schools, compared with 4,350 in charters and 3,850 in Renaissance schools — another type of privately run, publicly funded schools. The schools — run in Camden by the KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon chains — receive more state money than charters but must guarantee seats to every child in the neighborhood.

The Renaissance schools have already been approved to serve up to 9,750 students, although their current capacity is less than half that "based on their current open facilities," said Maita Soukup, spokeswoman for the Camden school district.

The schools are required to operate in new or renovated buildings. Democratic power broker George Norcross, a backer of the schools, in 2016 announced a fund to pay for construction and renovation projects.

Paymon Rouhanifard, the state-appointed Camden schools superintendent, said he was "optimistic that [Murphy] will see the overwhelming evidence that suggests certain schools like KIPP, Uncommon, Mastery here in Camden are functioning as neighborhood schools and getting good results."

"I think he may land on the other side with suburban charters," Rouhanifard said. Murphy has suggested he views urban and suburban charter schools differently, telling the NJ.com editorial board last year that "the Newark and Camden reality is a different reality than Montclair, Princeton, and Red Bank."

Cori Solomon isn't sure how Murphy's administration will view a proposed regional charter school for fifth through eighth grades in Salem, Gloucester, and Cumberland Counties. Creative CoLaboratory would be STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math)-focused and housed at Appel Farm Arts & Music Center, where Solomon is executive director. Conway's Camden charter network is supporting the application, which the state is expected to decide by Feb. 15.

Given that arts programs have faced budget cuts, and without other options in the area, the school meets a need, Solomon said. And because it would draw from eight districts, the impact on a given district would be lessened, she said.

"This school, the mission of it, is not to hurt the public schools," Solomon said. But for students who need arts education, "it is meant to provide families with another option."