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Legislation Would Create Board to Review Charter-School Bids

But debate continues as bill would still give final say on charters to state education commissioner

A proposed change in the way New Jersey handles applications for new charter schools would set up a quasi-independent review board within the state Department of Education.

However, while legislation proposed yesterday by state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) would update the 1995 charter school law by setting up the review board, the final say would still be left to the state education commissioner. Predictably, after years of disagreement over New Jersey’s charter-school laws, that provision has sparked its own debate.

The Assembly’s education committee yesterday held the first hearing on the bill. Its key provision would require a local vote for any new charter school to open. School district representatives were generally in favor of that, while those representing charter schools were opposed.

The nine-member review board would serve as an oversight agency, with three members each appointed by the governor, Senate president and Assembly speaker. The board would essentially replace the state’s charter school office, with its own staffing and budget. Like the charter office, it would review applications for approval and also monitor existing charters for compliance with the state’s rules.

Currently, only the state education department can approve and deny charters, making New Jersey one of just four states with a single authorizer. Over the past few years, some have contended that the state needs more levels of authorization, while others have called for leaving it in the hands of state education officials – and others have said they trust neither.

Diegnan’s bill is a variation of previous proposals to add “authorizers” to the approval process. One proposal last year called for including higher education institutions in the process. Another proposed giving local school boards authorizing powers. Where his proposal differs is that the state education commissioner would still have final say, notwithstanding the local vote.

“I believe the commissioner is the boss, no matter who it is, and you have to give the commissioner the ability to overrule the board’s decision,” Diegnan said after the hearing. “I think that accountability is very important.”

But some who want more than one authorizer were not keen on the latest proposal. The state’s charter schools association has called for a separate review board, but its director, Carlos Perez, said yesterday that the board should be entirely independent and have binding powers. He said he knows of no other state using a hybrid model like Diegnan’s.

“You are just making a multi-step process: there would be the review board and then the commissioner,” Perez said in an interview. “Our intent is to have something that is its own independent authorizer, and as an entity they would be publicly accountable.”

Those who have criticized the state’s current process said the review board might give the state even more power and dilute local control even further. They cited Illinois as an example of a state where a separate charter board has ended up with the ultimate say through its powers to grant appeals.

“If it’s used the way (Diegnan) proposed and stops there, that’s fine, with the local district being the ultimate authorizer,” said Darcie Cimarusti of Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots advocacy group that has led the fight against the state’s charter policies.

“But what I don’t want to see how it has been used in places like Illinois, where people can then appeal to the commission to win authorization,” she said. “Then it’s just a blank check all over again.”

The Assembly committee yesterday only discussed the proposed legislation. Diegnan said it would likely not get posted for a committee vote until the fall. He said he hoped it would go to the full Assembly thereafter.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairwoman of that chamber’s education committee, is expected to file her own charter school bill. She has said in the past that she does want multiple authorizers but she has also indicated some support of Diegnan’s bill.

“We’ve made a lot of progress on a major issue,” Diegnan said yesterday after the close of his hearing. “I’d like to do before year’s end. But I would like to see (Ruiz) get on board, and let her be comfortable with it.”

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