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At $15 Million, Virtual Charter Causes a Real Case of Sticker Shock

Teaneck's oversize bill for a proposed charter points out problems and loopholes in current law.

With two virtual charter schools approved in New Jersey and a third proposed, legislators and advocates are pressing the state to bring its laws up to date with the technology.

The latest development involves questions as to how the schools are to be funded -- and by how much, given the potential savings in brick-and-mortar costs.

The district of Teaneck would like to see both questions resolved ASAP. It received notice from the state this week that it should set aside more than $15 million to pay for up to 1,000 students who would attend the proposed Garden State Virtual Charter School housed in that community.

If the school is ultimately approved, the district would likely never have to pay anywhere near that much, since the school aims to draw students from across New Jersey. But through a quirk in the current law, the host community must at least budget for the fully enrolled, leaving the Teaneck superintendent with a bit of sticker shock.

"We were told it was purely for planning purposes, but to us planning means budget and programs and staff," said superintendent Barbara Pinsak. "That's 20 percent of our budget, that's a lot of money."

State officials have said the district is overreacting; the projection is only meant to help Teaneck with its budgeting. But Pinsak then asked why had the state sent a detailed notice with a precise figure, saying it will force her to commit funds that will be difficult to reallocate after the fact.

"You can't just rehire teachers in the middle of the year," she said, "and plug the money back in."

The situation has caused enough stir that some legislators are calling for revisions to the law to include clearer rules for all facets of virtual schools, from how students are recruited and enrolled, what facilities are required, and whether funding should match those of conventional schools.

"There remain some real questions of what's allowed and what's not," said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), primary sponsor of several prominent charter school bills now pending.

She has questioned whether two approved charter schools -- one in Newark, the other in Monmouth County -- can even open under the current law. But she said the Teaneck notice has also brought attention to whether virtual charters should be funded to the same level as others, given their cost savings.

"One of the attractions of virtual charters is they are less expensive, and certainly shouldn't be getting what the districts is spending," she said. "The Teaneck situation has helped bring that to light."

A proposed bill from the Christie administration seeks to add some flexibility to how virtual charters are paid for, but it has yet to gain much attention in the legislature. Among other things, it would allow for a district to petition the state to pay less than its per-pupil allotment if it could show school costs are lower. Districts can now petition, but must wait until the second year.

"Obviously there is interest in trying to address these things in the law, and we're trying to do that," said Justin Barra, communications director for the state Department of Education.

Carlos Perez, president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, has been working with the administration and legislators in rewriting the law in its entirety, but said the rules on virtual charters still need to be deliberated. He said there are few good models from other states.

"But the reality is virtual schools are happening, and we need to address this," he said. "If left untouched, we'll continue to have the same issues we are having right now."

And he said the outcry from Teaneck is only natural, and only leads to the continued tensions between charter schools and their host communities. "This is what creates the fear," he said.

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