Local Boards vs. Charter Schools

Communities -- especially suburban communities -- are looking to have some say over charter schools in their districts

How much say should local school districts and communities have over charter schools within their borders?

With tensions reaching a boil over charter schools in New Jersey — especially ones in the suburbs — several proposals are being floated from both sides of the political aisle that would provide communities with some additional say over the semi-autonomous schools.

In a nearly four-hour hearing on charter schools before the Assembly education committee, leading Democrats yesterday said they would support putting new charter schools to a vote by local referendum, much like the local school budget or a school construction project.

“I do believe a local referendum should be required,” said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the committee.

While not going that far, draft legislation last week from Gov. Chris Christie included a provision allowing local school boards to at least approve and oversee — or authorize — of charter schools.

At the same time, Christie approved 23 new charters, the biggest class in the state’s history — albeit only a few of them in suburban communities.

The idea of local authorizers interested several local board members testifying before the Assembly yesterday, including one from a community that was openly weighing the idea of converting its own schools to charters.

Glen Ridge officials last year said they were open to all options in the face of severe cuts in state aid and a community already overly burdened by local property taxes.

But while outright conversion now seems off the table, board president Elisabeth Ginsburg said yesterday that the idea of being an authorizer might be a good middle ground that at least allows the district and charters to work together.

“It may be the best route for sharing best practices,” she said.

Fifteen years after the state’s charter school law was enacted, the tensions between local schools and charters are nothing new in New Jersey, with 73 charter schools in place across the state and few, if any, districts putting out the welcome mat for them.

But the soured economy and the dire budget picture in state and local governments have brought tensions to a new level, especially in suburban communities where local educators and advocates maintain that district schools do just fine without the need for the alternatives that the charter schools represent.

Princeton has been the focal point in the latest debate, with district officials saying they must write a check for nearly $5 million for students enrolled in two charter schools serving that community. Rebecca Cox, the Princeton school board president, said charter schools have thrived by offering specialized programs that she contends serve specialized groups.

“It’s one thing to create a charter school when the local schools are failing, but another when it’s because Hebrew, Mandarin or the extensive recycling of plastics is not in the curriculum,” Cox said.