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Amended Urban Hope Act Likely to Clear Way for Renaissance Schools in Camden

Outstanding legal challenge still not resolved with new charter schools.

Trimmed down to win needed votes, the bill to amend the controversial Urban Hope Act and open the way for a new breed of charter schools ended up passing with little drama in the state Legislature last week.

The measure is almost certain to gain Gov. Chris Christie’s signature, and while it still faces a legal hurdle, it appears to clear the way for the first phase of “renaissance schools” to be built in Camden.

The bill would tighten some of the siting and enrollment requirements in the law signed by Christie last year, which he said would bring needed help to schoolchildren in Camden, Trenton, and Newark.

Sponsored by state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), the law set up a pilot program for those three cities that would allow private organizations to build and operate new public schools for the district.

The amendments, also sponsored by Norcross, are meant to fend off a pending legal challenge to the first and so far only project that has been cleared by the state under the new law, one for a network of five schools in Camden.

A prime backer of that project is Norcross’s brother, South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross and head of the Norcross family foundation. The first of the new schools is to be named KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, with the KIPP charter school network planning to operate the schools.

On a busy legislative day on Thursday, the bill cleared the state Senate 33-0. There were a few notable abstentions, including Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chairman of the Senate’s education committee, and Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson).

The Assembly vote was a bit more interesting, but the measure still won easily 48-18, with several prominent North Jersey Democrats, including state Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), dissenting without public comment.

But getting the bill to that point required Sen. Norcross to trim off some of its most controversial components, particularly the amendments that would have given the schools additional public bonding authority for new construction. The renaissance schools already stand to gain more public money than traditional charters, and can use some of those funds for facilities and construction, something charter schools cannot.

“We took out all the issues concerning bonding that other members had concerns about,” Norcross said on the eve of the votes. “We thought it would be easier to keep things just the way they are.”

That's not to suggest that the stripped-down bill is completely without controversy. One amendment, for example, grants renaissance school employees five years to meet the New Jersey's new in-state residency requirement.

Charters have been among the chief critics of the residency rule, saying it hamstrings them from hiring new teachers from places like New York City and Philadelphia.

The sponsor of that original law: Sen. Norcross.

Norcross last week said that amendment was part of the compromise process, and it will still be left to the state commissioner to approve each project.

“I’m not particularly in favor of that [amendment],” Norcross said. That’s why we left in that the commissioner of education will be able to make that decision on a very limited and pilot basis.”

Christie is sure to sign the amendments, given the widespread Republican support in both the Senate and Assembly. But a legal challenge still awaits.

The approval of the Camden project currently is being challenged by group of community activists and the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy organization best known for leading the Abbott v. Burke litigation.

The plaintiffs maintain that the projects as approved are in violation of the existing law and effectively give backers carte blanche to open schools wherever they like in the city.

Since that lawsuit was filed this spring, there have been quiet talks between the parties to try to settle the matter and clear the project so that it can get underway.

The legislation was meant to address most of the concerns, and the lawyer leading the work for the Education Law Center, Ruth Lowenkron, said she indeed had spoken with legislative staff as part of the settlement talks.

“Little can be said at this point because we are still in settlement discussions,” she said Friday. “We are speaking with the various players, it’s a bit of a back and forth right now.”

When asked whether the lawsuit’s arguments are now addressed, Lowenkron only said: “We are making every effort to have our voices heard in the process.”

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