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Bill Calls for Three-Year Freeze on Charter-School Approvals, Expansions

Sponsors acknowledge little immediate chance of passage, but legislation still stirs up plenty of protest

charter school protest
Charter-school advocates and families picket yesterday outside Assemblywoman Mila Jasey’s office in Maplewood.

It has almost no chance for passage anytime soon, but a bill calling for a moratorium on new charter schools in New Jersey is causing quite a ruckus nonetheless.

State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), a prominent voice in the charter school debate over the last few years, filed the legislation in early May. It calls for a three-year freeze on state approval of new charter schools or expansion of existing charters. The bill is co-sponsored by state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee.

Jasey acknowledged yesterday that the bill faces long odds, at best, with a Democratic caucus divided over charter school policy and a Republican governor who would never sign such a bill.

But she said the move was largely meant to try to resolve the long-running debate over how to oversee the growing charter school movement. Legislation to replace the state’s 20-year-old charter law has been pending – if not stalled -- for at least two years.

“I dropped the bill to force the conversation,” said Jasey, now co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools, a largely deliberative body. “Sometimes, in order to get everyone to come to the table, you need to force it.”

Nevertheless, Jasey’s bill has struck a sensitive nerve in the charter school community, with its state association mounting a public campaign against the legislation over the last month and more than 100 charter advocates and families picketing Jasey’s office yesterday in Maplewood.

Among those protesting was Charles Love, a Newark activist with one child in the North Star Academy charter schools.

“We have waited long enough for the (district) schools to get their act together,” he said in an interview afterward.

Love said charters aren’t the only solution, acknowledging that not all of them fare so well. But many, like North Star, do excel, he said, and squelching their growth would only hurt kids.

“The more options we have for low-income black and brown kids, the more you level the playing field,” he said.

The bill, and the ensuing protest, have stirred up an interesting political drama that has largely left the Legislature and the Christie administration all but paralyzed in trying to find a solution.

Diegnan, the co-sponsor of Jasey’s bill, said he also wants to spur some resolution, but he acknowledged that agreement even among Democrats has been elusive. Diegnan has proposed one bill that would tighten controls and standards for charters, but other Democrats have their own bills proposing rules that are vastly different.

Diegnan said yesterday that he didn’t see any new action taking place with Jasey’s bill – let alone any other charter bills – at least until the end of the year.

“In all honesty, this has been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be,” Diegnan said.

But charter advocates are taking no chances. Among the organizers of the rally yesterday was Ryan Hill, the president of the KIPP charter school network in Newark and Camden, which is among the fastest-growing in the state.

Hill, a long-time leader in the charter school movement, led a group of charter families who met with Jasey on Friday to discuss her bill, only to leave frustrated with her explanation that it was about spurring a political discussion.

“There are plenty of forums you can have that don’t include filing legislation,” he said. “Of course there are changes needed in the charter school law, but nothing that [Jasey is] doing makes that happen.”

And while Hill conceded that the bill faces tough political prospects, the charter school community felt it important to speak up now.

“This is just the beginning,” he said. “Our parents are tired of being beaten up.”

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