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Fast-Tracked and Rewritten Bill Could Put Some Public Schools Under Private Management

The Urban Hope Act could bring new public schools -- with some for-profit management -- to some of Jersey's poorest districts.

First proposed by Gov. Chris Christie and since taken up by South Jersey Democrats, a plan that would open up select public schools to nonprofit or even some limited for-profit management appears poised for passage in the final days of the legislature's lame duck session.

The proposed Urban Hope Act, at least in its current incarnation, is in part an attempt to speed the glacial pace of getting new schools built in some of New Jersey's poorest districts. The initiative may enlist the aid of the Schools Development Authority, which is often criticized for dragging its feet on projects.

The measure has seen a host of changes since the idea was first announced by Christie at a Camden public school last summer, and then filed as bills by state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) and state Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden).

Initially envisioned as an effort by Christie to convert low-performing public schools to private management, the latest version is focused on building a few new public schools in three districts: Camden, Newark, and Jersey City. Up to four schools could be launched in each district.

And the private part has been downgraded, with enough protections for public school teachers that the measure even has the support of the New Jersey Education Association. Local districts would also have to approve the new arrangements.

But the initiative still would create a new class of so-called renaissance schools in the state -- albeit on a pilot basis -- that would be separate from district management. And it proposes a new array of financing for schools to be built in these districts, including the possible participation of the beleaguered Schools Development Authority.

Still, potentially involving the SDA is sure to bring a series of operational and legal questions, if not challenges, especially since the authority was launched under court orders to build new district schools.

Norcross has taken the lead on the proposal on the Senate side, and said he made significant changes in the bill after meetings with a range of stakeholders, critics, and supporters.

"This is a reflection of those conversations, and just as important, it is something that can get passed and signed into law," Norcross said.

The bill is clearly on the fast track, with both the Assembly's and the Senate's budget committees hearing the measure on Thursday and the full chamber ready for vote on Monday, the final day of the session.

The hearings are likely to be crowded, with advocates on both sides expected to testify. The NJEA, a notable supporter, hasn't typically lined up behind proposals first championed by Christie.

But Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the chief lobbyist for the NJEA, said yesterday that Norcross had addressed the most significant of the union's worries in writing into the bill that the schools would fall under the same accountability and standards as traditional public schools. Further, teachers would be fully certified and protected by the same rights as in public schools, including the right to organize.

"Back in July, we thought this had a mess a problems, and he [Norcross] was willing to listen to us," Schnitzer said yesterday. "When he then takes a lion's share of our suggestions, how can we not support it? This is still about public schools and using public money for public education."

Numerous questions remain, since the bill does allow for private management of at least some non-instructional school functions. It also waives public bidding laws for these schools and brings in the potential that some of the projects would be built on SDA land that had been designated by the Supreme Court for district schools.

David Sciarra, the lawyer that has led the Abbott v. Burke court fight said there are a "host of practical and legal questions."

Much of the attention is focused on a project being promoted by Norcrosss' brother, Democratic leader George Norcross, that would use land next to the Cooper Health Systems in Camden, of which he is chairman. The property in Lanning Square had been earmarked for a district public school that has been perennially stalled by the SDA.

"This is essentially opening up SDA to use of their sites for projects for either non- or for-profit use," said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center in Newark. "That raises a whole host of concerns that we have not seen addressed in any serious manner."

Norcross, the senator, didn't deny that the Lanning Square site would be a prime candidate for the project, and he said one of the impetuses of the bill as now written is to get long-stalled projects moving in some form. Norcross has been a frequent critic of the SDA's slow action under Christie.

"There are a number of sites in Camden, and they will all get looked at," he said. "There has been nothing more disappointing than seeing [the Lanning Square site] sit there year after year."

Other critics have said there are also questions around the financing of such projects, with private companies potentially reaping the benefits at the taxpayers' expense. One provision of the bill would have local districts responsible for any bonding for the new schools' construction.

""While the revised Urban Hope legislation is an improvement on the original, a number of serious concerns remain that make it very vulnerable to corruption and abuse, at the taxpayers' expense," said Julia Sass Rubin, spokesperson for Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots group that has grown active in school reform debates.

"We hope that the legislature will address these problems so that the good intentions of this program are not subsumed by unintended corruption and abuse."

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