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Legislature Passes Charter Bill, But Advocates and Critics Want More Changes

Parochial school conversion measure passes, although reception remains in doubt.

One change to New Jersey's charter school law passed the legislature yesterday, while talk mounts that a broader rewrite of the state's 15-year-old statute governing the semi-autonomous schools may be in the offing.

The state Senate passed a bill that would allow certain parochial and private schools to convert to charters. Few think that the proposal will lead to many such conversions, but may send a lifeline to at least a few closing Catholic schools.

The measure, which passed 25-13, is the only one of a half-dozen proposed reforms to New Jersey's charter school law that has now passed both the Senate and the Assembly. It goes next to Gov. Chris Christie for his expected signature.

But while other charter proposals have languished, leading Democratic legislators said there is momentum gaining for a more comprehensive overhaul of the 1996 charter law that could loosen some restrictions and add others.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the Senate education committee, said in an interview that she still hopes to get some specific changes through by the end of the calendar year, including a bill to extend the number of organizations that can approve new charters.

But Ruiz said she also plans a public hearing of experts and educators before her committee in the next month to start what she called a "hard look" at the overall law.

"It will be for discussion purposes, so we can engage in a conversation," she said. "We need to look at what has been working in the law, and what hasn't been working."

"It is time to revisit the law in its entirety," Ruiz said.

Pending Proposals

What will be included in those revisions, of course, is still to be determined. Some pending proposals would increase the state's capacity for approving and overseeing charters, while others would make it more difficult for new charters to open and put greater restrictions on existing ones.

Christie has proposed his own charter revisions that would add significantly more flexibility to charter schools, while his education commissioner, Chris Cerf, has lately been touting greater accountability for enrollment and performance.

One of the primary sponsors of several of the proposals in the Assembly said the broader rewrite of the law, in whatever form, is likely to take some time. State Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), whose list of bills includes the charter conversion proposal passed yesterday, said he has been involved in some of the early discussions about enacting a new law entirely.

"It is something that is being looked at as we speak, and we are waiting for some more feedback," he said. "But a whole new charter law may be something that we want to save for the new legislative session."

In the meantime, he pressed for another of his bills that would set stiffer requirements for existing charters and the lotteries they use to select students.

"We need to do something," he said. "The status quo is unacceptable."

The Conversion Measure

For now, passage of the charter conversion bill is the latest development in the escalating debate as to the merits of the alternative schools and how to best oversee them.

The bill would allow private schools that show certain levels of student performance to have a chance to become public charters. The conversions would be reserved to districts where the existing public schools have low achievement levels.

While the measure is aimed at Catholic schools that otherwise would be forced to close due to dropping enrollments, the New Jersey Catholic Conference and other church leaders have not endorsed the bill. They said few of their schools would make such conversions, since it would dilute the value of a Catholic education.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the Senate sponsor of the bill, said he was disappointed in the dearth of support from the church, but added that he did expect the proposal to help some Catholic schools to at least save their teachers and their students. He said he has heard support from church leaders in Camden.

"Even if it only happens in Camden, that is a good thing to keep those faculty intact and the student body in place," Lesniak said.

The Senate's passage drew support from the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, which sought to put it in context of a broader change in the law as well. The association has pressed for a more comprehensive review of the charter law.

"This bill is a good first step toward amending the current charter school law to support the expansion of high-quality charter schools," said Donna Siminski, the association's director of policy and advocacy.

"However, we feel it should be included as part of comprehensive reform legislation," she said in a statement. "We believe more can be done to ensure greater accountability and autonomy in schools while addressing the funding inequities which currently exist."

A coalition of other school choice advocates said more fundamental reforms are needed through a pending school voucher proposal, the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), and that Christie should think twice about signing the conversion bill. Christie is a strong voucher proponent who has openly campaigned for OSA.

"I would request that Governor Christie pause his pen and reach out to major stakeholders to pragmatically assess whether this is dressing a wound or dressing a window," said Norm Alworth, president of Excellent Education for Everyone.

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