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Controversial Charter Proposal Heads to State’s Highest Court Today

Organizers of plan for school in Montclair, rejected six times, claim rules are stacked against them.

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New Jersey Supreme Court at the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton

Tracey Williams has applied six times for the state Department of Education’s approval to start a charter school in Montclair -- and six times she has been denied.

Today, Williams and the rest of the team behind the proposed Quest Academy Charter School will state their case before a different and arguably more powerful body: the state Supreme Court.

Oral arguments are scheduled this afternoon in a legal challenge filed by Williams and other founders over the state’s charter school application process that has continually rejected Quest’s application to open a charter high school for 250 students.

The arguments can be viewed by Webcast, starting at 1 p.m.

The argument is that the state’s review process is flawed as a whole and has been particularly so in relation to Quest’s bid. The applicants maintain they have met every one of the state’s requirements and nonetheless continue to be turned aside.

Quest has focused its claim on what is termed the state’s “standard of review,” arguing that the charter application process is a quasi-judicial one that comes with strict requirements of evidence.

An appellate court sided with the state last May, deferring to the department’s judgment in its review process. But the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, in what is the first charter school appeal to go before the high court and coming at a timely moment in the state’s ongoing charter school debate.

Since Gov. Chris Christie’s election, he and his administration have continually pressed for more charter schools, seeing them as providing a needed alternative, especially in low-performing public school districts.

But there has been increasing pushback from local communities and their school districts, especially in suburban towns. Critics have maintained that the state’s charter school office has been too lax in approving schools, even as the number of new charter schools has dropped.

That’s what makes Quest’s challenge – and the Supreme Court’s willingness to hear it – so intriguing, as the court weighs in on a process that has few public defenders.

While critics have maintained that districts should have a prominent, if not final, say in the approval of new schools, Williams maintained that the only reason her school has been rejected has been Montclair’s local opposition.

“The process should be fair and not just because a district thinks it needs a charter or not,” Williams said yesterday. “Their reasons for rejecting have always been trumped up, without any real evidence.”

“I always did what I was asked to do,” she continued. “The last time, I gave them 30 pages of additional information they asked for, and they still rejected it.”

The court’s ultimate decision could also have a political impact, as legislative leaders have said rewriting the state’s 18-year-old charter school law would be a priority in the coming year.

Although that has become an almost-perennial pledge, one new bill -- filed by state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee -- would tighten the review process and require local approval of new schools.

A draft of a competing bill from state Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) is also circulating. In addition, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate education chair, is also expected to have a prominent voice in any new legislation, but has yet to offer a bill.

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