How much should local school districts have a say about the presence of charter schools in their midst?
It was a topic that dominated the Senate budget hearing yesterday, where acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf testified as to the growing tensions that have surfaced -- especially in suburban communities -- over the new schools.
To him, it was unequivocal that local districts and their voters not have a direct say in the alternative schools, which operate under state charter.
"If it were up to local municipalities, it would essentially kill charter schools," Cerf said.
Those tensions were very much in evidence yesterday, as Democratic leaders quizzed Cerf on where charters are needed and where they are mostly causing resentment. Residents of Milburn at a meeting last night could speak to the latter, with some asking why in a time of tight budgets they should be paying for two charter schools proposed for their students.
"There is a fair amount of tension about this in a place like Millburn," superintendent James Crisfield said.
"The online community is especially abuzz, with a lot of talk about duplicating costs," he added. "At a time of austere budgets and trying to cut costs and save money, this would be just adding to our costs."
Millburn is not alone. The same issues have been playing out across the state as Gov. Chris Christie has pushed to expand charter schools as a central piece of his reform agenda. His administration this year approved 23 new charters, bringing to 97 the total number statewide.
Those tensions are also reflected in the legislature, as Monday's hearing made clear.
The first question to Cerf from state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) asked if he believed that local districts should be able to vote on whether charter schools are to open in a district.
"There is a growing outrage about charter schools being forced in communities where they don’t want them," Buono said.
"There is no opportunity, none whatsoever, for local taxpayers to have a say whether they want one or not," she said. "There needs to be broad community support or input as to whether there is a need."
Buono said a new charter school in her own legislative district in East Brunswick has drawn funds from local school districts, forcing them to make cuts while the charter school maintains its budget.
East Brunswick now "can’t afford full-day kindergarten, while the charter school can afford full-day kindergarten," Buono said. "That makes a lot of people very unhappy and leads to needless resentments."
Cerf was adamant against a local vote, pointing out there is no such requirement in any state, but he did offer some concessions. He said in the state’s review of charter school applications, it could be more cognizant of local needs, academic and financial.
"We should be asking ourselves, does it fit a need in a community like East Brunswick or is it something that is just complicating," he said.
Later, he added: "I do believe a focus on need is a very appropriate litmus test."
But he also said it with some caution. "All of these are legitimate and fair considerations," he commented, "but also legitimate and fair when you have thousands of parents clamoring for a school, we might agree they should have a voice, too."
The issue played out in stark form at the Millburn meeting later in the day, where more than 100 people filled the auditorium to hear from several experts on the topic.
Millburn, long considered one of the highest-performing districts in the state, faces the possibility of two new charter schools opening up in Essex County. Both are Mandarin language immersion elementary schools, that would draw students from Millburn, as well as other neighboring districts. The two schools have applied to the state, with a decision still several months away.
Among the experts were officials from Princeton Regional Schools district, one of the districts in the state to host a charter school when the alternative schools first opened more than a decade ago. Next year, it will pay more than $4 million to send its students to that and another charter school.
"That’s why I’m here, because that’s a sizable part of our budget," said Rebecca Cox, president of the Princeton school board.
And many of the questions centered on the budget, whether districts had a choice in how much they send and how much they save in not serving those students. No, they have no choice, the officials said, and they estimated that charters saved only about a third of that amount.
But Crisfield also agreed that there should be some consideration in approving a charter as to whether its host district needs an alternative school -- although admitting it's difficult to draw that line.
"It depends on how you define need," he said. "Maybe I can walk in some districts and eyeball the need immediately. But in a place like Millburn or Livingston, it’s a bit harder to define what you would say is a real need."