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Quest Academy Charter to Get Its Day in Supreme Court

After being denied a charter for a record five times, Quest questions if the state is meeting its own 'standard for review.'

The Hughes Justice Center, home to the state Supreme Court.
The Hughes Justice Center, home to the state Supreme Court.

New Jersey’s charter school law and the state’s system of oversight have been commented on and debated in political and education circles.

Now the state’s highest court is about to join in the argument.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal from the founders of a proposed charter school in Montclair against the state Department of Education for its repeated failure to grant it a charter.

The Quest Academy Charter School -- a planned high school for up to 250 students -- has been denied a charter a record five times by the state on a variety of grounds, ranging from questions about the completeness of its application to mounting resistance from the local district and others.

The local backlash to charter schools has become a statewide pattern, leading the administration to pull back on approving new charters, especially in suburban communities.

Quest first appealed in 2010 after its third rejection by then-acting Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks, and was denied by the state appellate court in May. The judges ruled unanimously that the state had properly followed the process in rejecting the school. (Quest has also appealed the fifth rejection earlier this year in a separate case.)

But in its petition to the state Supreme Court in June, the founders then challenged the process as a whole, opening up questions as to whether it was rigorous enough in following the law’s standards.

The challenge was based on the question of what is termed “standard of review,” arguing that the charter application process is a quasi-judicial one that has strict requirements of evidence.

The appellate court had sided with the state’s claim that it was more a quasi-legislative process that only needed to prove it wasn’t arbitrary and capricious.

But in the appellants’ petition, they argued there were numerous holes in the process and the state’s own capacity to fulfill it. They cited a state auditor’s report from last year that found several shortcomings in the state’s charter school office at the time.

If the appellants win, it would only add some high-powered fuel to the debate about the state’s role in overseeing charter schools, one that has only intensified under Gov. Chris Christie.

“Anytime you asking whether it is the appropriate standard of review, obviously it will cut across all the applications that are out there and the process as a whole,” said Michael Confusione, a Cherry Hill attorney representing the founders.

“To us, Quest’s situation is illustrative of a process that really isn’t fair and there really isn’t much review at all,” he said.

The Christie administration in its response maintained that the process was followed closely, and the appellants’ arguments did not rise to the level of importance warranted by the high court’s review.

“Nothing in this matter rises to the level required for certification by the Supreme Court,” read the response by Diana Sierotowicz, a deputy attorney general. “A fair reading of the appellate division decision shows that the administrative record was thoroughly reviewed.”

Still, for the court to hear the case at all caught some observers by surprise, the first venture for the justices into the contentious issue of charter schools. It comes at a time when the Legislature has openly said it wants to revisit the law as well, with some draft legislation making an appearance every few months.

“It’s one issue you think the court would want to stay away from,” joked Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers Law School professor who has argued before the court in the Abbott v. Burke legislation.

Still, he and other said it raised some interesting questions as to an issue that has clearly been contentious. Tractenberg’s initial take was that the state could make a good argument for its process.

“I’m not a great fan of how the department behaves, but not sure this is the argument against them,” he said. “Does the court really want to intervene and say the department needs more staffing?”

William Harla, an attorney with DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick & Cole, last year represented a Princeton-based charter school fighting in court for its survival against local opposition. He also thought that this would be a high bar for the appellants to clear.

But he also said it appeared that the justices wanted to at least be part of the discussion.

“It’s a relatively new statute that hasn’t been reviewed by the court,” he said. “They’ll now take a look at and see whether it is adequate.”

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