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Is Christie Administration Shifting to Charter School Expansions vs. New Openings?

While only one new charter application won approval, complete policy picture is more complex

hatikvah charter school
Hatikvah Charter School in East Brunswick.

When the Christie administration approved just one new charter school application last week, questions arose over whether it was backing off from its previous enthusiastic support for the growth of the charter movement in the state.

A separate move to place seven other charters on probation and close two more existing schools reinforced that notion.

But it has turned more of a mixed picture, as the state on Friday announced it would approve expansion of four charter schools, including a controversial Hebrew-language school in East Brunswick.

And on Monday, the state Department of Education announced that it had rejected an appeal in the contentious case involving renewal and expansion of another charter school in Hoboken, the HoLa Dual Language Charter School.

All the cases, pieced together, represent the complex picture of how the state’s charter movement is shaping up in Gov. Chris Christie’s second term. After the rush of approvals for new charter schools in the first term, far fewer charters are being approved in the second.

In announcing the four approvals last week, the administration said in each case that the schools had proven their ability to provide quality education while meeting fiscal and operational requirements. On the other hand, the administration also turned down five other applications for expansion.

Democratic legislators have started to ask questions about the administration’s apparent shift over the last couple of years, as the Legislature grapples with how to bolster the state’s charter-school oversight.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), the Assembly’s education chair, said at a conference on Friday is worry about charter expansions in the face of local opposition.

And state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), co-chair of the Joint Committee for the Public Schools, said at the same conference that it was time for a moratorium, both on new charters and on expansion of existing charter schools.

“I think we need a timeout to look at our experience in New Jersey over the past 20 ears to what has worked and hasn’t worked,” Jasey said at the legislative conference of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

“I think a moratorium on seats would be a better idea than on (overall) approvals,” she said. “Right now, you have the ability for existing schools to add seats without applying for an additional charter.”

The odds are long for any new controls via the Legislature, where virtually any changes to the state’s two-decade-old charter school law have hit roadblocks.

Diegnan, sponsor of one major charter revision bill, said Friday that he didn’t expect passage of any revisions any time soon due to some fundamental differences over whether local voters should have a final say. Such a provision, which was in his bill, has been a non-starter with other legislators, charter advocates, and the Christie administration itself.

“It’s hard to get consensus on charter school legislation, I’ll be honest with you, especially concerning public input,” Diegnan said.

When asked if any legislation would pass, Diegnan replied: “I maybe shouldn’t say this out loud, but I don’t think we’ll have consensus on this until we have a different governor.”

Among the four expansions approved last week, the expansion of the Hatikvah Charter School in East Brunswick was among the most contested.

The school last year was turned down by the state in its bid to add grades and students. But the Christie administration gave the elementary school at least half a victory this time, agreeing to let the school add middle-school grades for existing students as they get older but turning down a request to increase enrollment.

The approval would allow the addition of 150 students over three years in seventh and eighth grades, a significant jump from the current 300 students in kindergarten through fifth grade at the school.

The state also approved expansions at the following schools:

The rejected expansions were: Newark Educators Community Charter School, New Horizons Charter School (Newark), Paterson Charter School For Science/Technology, Vineland Public Charter School, and Teaneck Community Charter School.

The expansion application of HoLa in Hoboken actually was submitted last year, and was initially approved by the education department. But the public school district appealed, leading to the decision released yesterday. It still can be appealed to the state Appellate Court.

The district had challenged whether HoLa was leading to a racial segregation within the school community as a whole, with its predominantly white enrollment compared to a district enrollment that is predominantly black and Hispanic.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe ruled that he found no such impact, noting that HoLa’s enrollment has reflected a growth in the white population in Hoboken overall.

“Compared to Hoboken district schools, the demographic composition of HoLa’s student population appears to better reflect Hoboken’s population,” Hespe wrote.

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