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In the Suburbs, Charter Schools Raise Concerns About Local Control

Can a local school district block a charter from opening or refuse to fund it?

Credit: Marilyn Joyce Lehren
Lili Meddahi, a Maplewood third grader, decorates a protest sign against charters.

When a charter school opens in a gritty urban neighborhood, few parents and officials argue that kids in the district don't need an alternative to the local public schools. In a leafy New Jersey suburb -- which may be home to some of the best schools in the country -- charters can spark off a battle between skeptics and believers. The former often dismiss charters as "boutiques," and argue that they'll sap increasingly scarce dollars from local schools. The latter want their kids to have more choices and challenges -- like Mandarin language immersion -- and think their school taxes should pay for them.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to local control. Should school districts have the right to bar a charter from opening in their midst, as well as the right to refuse to pay for it?

Those questions were very much at issue on Friday night in Maplewood, an Essex County suburb, where about 100 parents, local officials, and state lawmakers showed up at a community center to protest a proposed world language school making its second try for charter approval.

“This is an example of the charter school movement gone off the rails,” said Marian Rabb, a Maplewood mother of two young children who helped organize the rally.

Children, meanwhile, decorated colorful anti-charter signs, and one kindergartener tugged at the knees of her mother making an impassioned speech for passage of the bill that would give communities a local vote on charter schools being allowed to open.

Sen. Richard Codey (D-27th) held high a homemade sign then went on to blast the administration’s plans to privatize education, end teacher tenure, and open more charter schools. “We have not seen an attack on a public school system like this ever in our lifetime . . . so ugly and determined,” he said.

The target of the rally is a school led by a licensed acupuncturist who wants to immerse elementary students in Mandarin Chinese. Its application, which was rejected less than four months ago by the Christie administration, has since been retooled to cover fewer towns, and no longer would encompass the governor's hometown of Livingston, as well as Milburn-Short Hills.

The parents from those sending districts (Union was also originally proposed) were the most vocal against the schools. But new parents have stepped up, collecting more than 1,600 signatures opposing the school, and inundating the charter office with letters and petitions.

The Maplewood protest is far from alone. Across the state, in towns including Highland Park, Princeton, Montclair, East Brunswick and Cherry Hill, similar battles are raging. The Maplewood Mandarin proposal is emblematic of many of the charters proposed for these suburban communities. They are called boutiques, centered on niche approaches like immersing students in Mandarin or Hebrew. They especially spark resentment from parents who say the specialty schools will drain dwindling public funds from well-functioning school districts.

The role of these experimental schools -- designed 16 years ago as “laboratories for innovation” -- and how they are approved and evaluated is expected to be among the top education reforms put before state lawmakers this session.

“I’m not opposed to charter schools per se,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27th District), a strong advocate for charter school reform. “However, that role needs to be defined and carefully laid out.”

Jasey proposed legislation signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie that would allow conversion of private and parochial schools into charter schools.

Another bill would allow for local votes on charters, and a third would require financial and educational transparency and accountability. The local vote measure has been roundly rejected by the Christie administration and some of the Democratic leadership, who fear it will effectively stop charter schools from opening anywhere. The transparency law is stalled in the Senate Budget Committee.

Despite the setbacks, these reforms remain in play behind the scenes in talks on a comprehensive overhaul of the 1996 charter law that could loosen some restrictions and add others, observers of the process said.

"We're optimistic that local control over the creation of new charter schools will happen during the forthcoming legislative session,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers professor and one of the founding members of Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots group that has been critical of the state's charter school law.

There are 26,730 schoolchildren enrolled in 80 charter schools, more than half of them operating in New Jersey’s poorest cities. That number grew 16.7 percent last year, according to the New Jersey Charter School Association, but still represents just 2 percent of all children enrolled in New Jersey’s public schools.

The state Department of Education last year adopted a more rigorous review to determine the strengths of the proposed programs, granting just four charters approval last September out of a class of 55. The denied applicants received coaching on ways to make their proposals stronger.

Last fall, three weeks after being rejected and despite strong objections in their communities, two schools in Essex County resubmitted their application for “fast-track” approval that will be announced on January 17. The applications for Hua Mei in Maplewood (trying for a second time) and Quest Academy Charter High School in nearby Montclair (making its fifth try) remain in the running, according to the Christie administration.

“It’s a perversion of the charter laws,” said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-27th District) arriving to protest Hua Mei, which would also draw students from West Orange, the community where he lives and served as mayor.

Hua Mei has changed its application most radically, dropping two sending districts that had voiced the loudest and strongest challenge, the blue-ribbon school districts of Livingston and Millburn-Short Hills.

It’s the same tactic employed by another proposed charter for Hebrew-language instruction after it met stiff opposition in Highland Park. Now trying for a fourth time, Tikum Olam has dropped Highland Park from the application process, and now says the majority of students will be recruited from New Brunswick and Edison.

The charter schools, though, could still be permitted to enroll students from those towns, up to 10 percent of the total student body of the sending school districts’ tab, and parents have not backed down. “Why do communities have to keep doing this, keep fighting to control their schools?” Rubin asked. “It’s such a broken process.”

Hua Mei now intends to serve students from South Orange-Maplewood and West Orange, which already has a Mandarin program in place for Grades 8-12 and recently expanded to offer advanced placement.

A review of Hua Mei’s applications show other changes as well, including increasing the pay of teachers hired for five K-2 classrooms where students would learn lessons mostly in Mandarin and adding a special education teacher for students with special needs.

Jasey told her hometown supporters -- she served on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education before being elected to Assembly -- that she had a conversation last week with acting commission Christopher Cerf. “I’ve told him if this decision is not the one we’re looking for, then he has seen nothing yet.” In letters to Cerf, the South Orange-Maplewood school district has hammered away at specifics within the proposal, including how it will fund recruiting students, hire teachers, and develop curriculum with no start-up money.

West Orange’s superintendent, Dr. Anthony Cavanna, told Cerf he is “adamantly opposed to a charter school that would be a duplication of well established and highly regarded [Mandarin] programs” already in place in West Orange schools.

McKeon and Jasey followed the rally with a mailing to residents in West Orange, South Orange and Maplewood. Letters arrived on Saturday saying they agreed with the superintendent’s analyses sent to Cerf and their strong opposition. The Hua Mei proposal, the assemblymen said, “would divert funding from successful public schools to a charter school that, by its design, cannot be replicated in a traditional public school setting.”

The sending districts would provide $1.91 million to the charter school its first year, according to Hua Mei’s financial statement. That’s to cover 90 percent of tuition for any student who chose to attend, an issue that rankles local taxpayers. “I want to see all our tax dollars -- and there are quite a few of them -- sent to public schools at which all our children can take advantage of them,” said Melanie Hochberg Giger of Maplewood, who brought her two preschoolers to the rally.

Outside, two supporters of Hua Mei talked with reporters against a simple black and white “Yes Charter” sign. “I respect both sides of the argument,” said Adam Kraemer, a West Orange resident, “but there is room to improve the fiscal and education polices of the [suburban] districts . . . Even in healthy districts there is room for improvement and perhaps healthy competition could be beneficial.”

Hua Mei’s lead founder, Jutta Gassner-Snyder identifies herself as a parent and diplomate of Orient medicine practicing acupuncture and Chinese herbology in her letter to Cerf. She says, “I not only wish for my daughter to gain fluency in Mandarin, but also to help her become a responsible, compassionate global citizen with a wide-reaching set of skills that will give her the confidence and ability to compete alongside our Asian counterparts.”

Proponents say the school will better prepare pupils for the increasing demands of a global marketplace and that the charter school will not be as big a financial drain as districts claim because the district would not have to educate those children. The founders also point to the interest of Chinese language education in the area, including two weekend-immersion Chinese schools and a private, immersion preschool and K-2 school. Because they are fee-based they limit who can attend, the application says.

If approved next week, Hua Mei would be working under a tight deadline to recruit students and hire teachers in order to open as planned in September. The school intends to pay $96,000 a year to share space at a former parochial school in Maplewood, which recently also rented classrooms to a private school for older children in Grades 5-12 with learning, behavioral and social challenges. It is unclear how the two schools would share the building.

The pressure is expected to remain on the state Department of Education as it decides on the future of charters like Hua Mei in New Jersey’s suburbs.

“Hopefully we won’t have to be here every six months,” said Brian Osborne, the schools superintendent in South Orange-Maplewood. “But if we have to, we’ll be here.”

Marilyn Joyce Lehren was editor of Livingston Patch in Essex County. She has written on a variety of issues, including education, and has worked as a copy editor at The Times of Trenton and as a reporter for The Philadelphia Business Journal.

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