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Reform Bill Could Reshape Landscape for Charter-School Approvals

Local say would be increased, single authority would weigh applications statewide

Assemblyman Troy Singleton
Assemblyman Troy Singleton

Long-awaited legislation that would rewrite the state’s charter school law, including a new proposal for easing the tug-of-war over local say in the application process, was introduced yesterday by state Assemblyman Troy Singleton.

The Camden County Democrat, a charter-school supporter who has been influential in the Legislature’s ongoing charter debates, had been expected to file the bill to overhaul the state’s nearly 20-year-old law and had been circulating a draft version for the last month.

But the bill that he and state Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia (D-Hudson) finally ended up introducing yesterday had some significant changes from the original draft, most notably a provision that would give local school boards more say than ever over the approval of new charter schools.

Under the bill, 30 percent of the criteria for the state approving a new charter would be the vote of the local school board. Singleton’s initial bill had only included requirements for public hearings, and Singleton has often said he would oppose a binding local vote on new charters, as some had proposed.

But yesterday, Singleton called his proposal a compromise that came out of consultations with other Assembly members, including state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), the chair of the Assembly education committee. Diegnan had pursued the local vote requirement.

“Right now, the public’s voice is silent,” Singleton said yesterday. “Why don’t we say that it represent 30 percent (of the decision)? I saw this as a middle ground.”

Singleton’s bill would make some other big adjustments in the application process.

Most notably, his bill would create a nine-member authorizing board that would oversee charter schools in the state, make recommendations for new approvals to the state commissioner, and have final say on charter renewals and other actions once the schools were opened.

The bill would also give charter schools considerable help with facilities, which is often one of their biggest challenges. It would provide state funding for facilities, including money through the Schools Development Authority, and give charter first rights on vacated school district buildings.

The bill was still being reviewed by Democratic leaders this week, with several of them saying they were withholding judgment yesterday.

Diegnan, in an interview, credited Singleton for his work on the bill, but said there still needs to be more discussion and input. He especially praised the local input provision, but said that, too, may need to be fine-tuned.

“What all of us are trying do is have local engagement, and I compliment Troy for including his,” Diegnan said. “I’m just not sure if that is exactly the right percentage.”

Still, Diegnan said that some kind of local say is critical to any bill. “I don’t have the answer to what it is, but it has to be in there,” he said.

Some bigger political hurdles loom. The Christie administration has been steadfast in opposing a binding local vote, and state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate education committee -- who has said she would also introduce a charter bill -- has also opposed it.

As for Singleton’s latest version, Ruiz said yesterday that she needed to review the bill before making any comment.

The New Jersey Charter School Association issued a press release early in the day commending Singleton for his work, but raised concerns about the provisions for local input and the proposal for having only one authorizing board. The association has pressed for multiple authorizers in the state.

“Assemblyman Singleton understands the need for greater student achievement in public education and his legislation initiates the debate on many key issues such as independent authorizing authority and greater accountability for New Jersey’s public charter schools,” read the statement.

“However, as written, the NJCSA has concerns with the bill, especially where it lacks truly independent dual authorizing and funding parity, as well as limits on local politics from influencing public charter school applications.”

Save Our Schools NJ, the grassroots group that has been most vocal in pressing for binding local involvement in any revised charter law, said it also had much to review.

"For Save Our Schools NJ to support a charter reform bill, it has to include a substantive local control component,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a founding member of the group and a frequent spokesperson.

“It also has to address the segregation by income, special needs and English language proficiency between charter and public schools in a serious way. And, it has to increase charter school transparency and accountability."

Upon introduction, the bill was referred yesterday to the Assembly education committee.

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