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Draft Charter Bill Calls for Local Approval, More Reviewers

John Mooney | April 26, 2013

Bill sponsor -- Assemblyman Diegnan -- hopes to build consensus before Legislature tackles NJ's 18-year-old charter law.

The outlines of a new charter school bill are taking shape, with a draft being circulated by Assembly Democrats that would add tighter controls on new charters and expand the number of organizations approving and overseeing the schools.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chair of the Assembly’s education committee, has completed a draft that would require local voters to approve new charter schools and would add up to three “reviewers” from colleges and universities.

The draft would also restructure parts of the application process for charter schools and place new requirements on them to annually report and post their enrollment breakdowns and budgets.

Diegnan said yesterday that he expected still more changes to come before the bill is formally introduced in May, but he hopes his proposals at least start building a consensus on the long-delayed update of New Jersey’s 18-year-old charter school law.

“This is clearly not the final document, but hopefully gets the discussion going,” he said yesterday, adding that his goal is for a hearing by his committee before summer.

Many of the latest provisions have been proposed before in various bills, but each has fallen short of approval in either the Assembly or the Senate or both.

But Diegnan said his office has been working with that of state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate education chair who is crafting on her own bill and is considered the Senate point person on the issue.

And Ruiz yesterday gave Diegnan’s bill a boost, saying the general outline is in keeping with her intentions.

“I think our frameworks and the starting points are very much aligned," Ruiz said in an interview.

But she added that there were many details to work out. Indeed, given that rewriting the charter bill has become a multiyear discussion, those details sure to be at the center of the debate in coming months.

For instance, while Diegnan presses local approval, Ruiz in the past has said she would not support a local vote on charters, and Gov. Chris Christie is almost certain to be against it.

Diegnan’s draft also omits other key issues in the charter debate, including online or virtual schools and funding.

Charters are currently funded out of local district budgets, a main source of the tensions that have arisen of late between host communities and the alternative schools.

Diegnan said yesterday said he was not ignoring funding, but noted that this would be a difficult time to address it, given the current budget crisis.

“It’s a bad time to be talking about funding,” Diegnan said yesterday. “It is obviously an important element, but this is not the time.”

Diegnan also appears to have stepped back from previous proposals to tighten the requirements on charters. For example, the new bill calls for charters not to skim the best or most committed students, but falls short on requiring that they match the demographics of their host districts.

Diegnan said yesterday that charters have always been meant to be places of innovation and testing out different choices for families, and he didn’t want to be too restrictive in dictating their enrollments. One of the provisions of the bill would press the state to encourage charter schools to serve specifically at-risk students.

“As best as possible, we don’t want to stifle what is the purpose of charters in the first place, but we also want to keep in place some safeguards,” he said.

The draft has been circulated among many of the key groups involved in the deliberations, Diegnan said, including the teachers unions, the state’s school boards and administrators groups, and various advocacy organizations.

“It is a promising bill that recognizes the need to protect both host communities and charter schools,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots group critical of the state’s charter school policy.

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