For Charter Schools, Applications Outpace Legislation

John Mooney | April 4, 2011 | Education
New rules governing charters promised by Gov. Christie and lawmakers slow to materialize

Charter schools continue to go through a growth spurt in New Jersey, as dozens more applications enter the pipeline, but the pace is far slower for the legislation that would call for new rules and better oversight of all these new schools.

The Christie administration announced last week another 58 applications for new charters. It was the biggest round of applications yet, even counting those making their second or third bids, and it comes on the heels of the state approving 23 charter schools earlier this year.

But while the numbers are jumping at record levels, the sweeping legislation promised by Gov. Chris Christie to open up charters further and change the rules of oversight has yet to be even filed.

And other, more specific legislation that would extend to colleges and universities the ability to approve or renew charters — known as “authorizers” — has also seen slow progress to date.

The Senate version approved by committee six months ago has yet to be posted for full vote. The Assembly version was filed last month, but its prime sponsor said she wasn’t sure when it would be heard, either.

“The whole thing is in flux,” said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex). “And I’m a worried right now. If we don’t put some parameters around all these schools, there are just going to be some that don’t do well. . . The last thing we want is a charter that opens and then has to close.”

“There are major questions that need to be answered as to who is minding the store,” she said.

Jasey calls herself a supporter of charter schools, but said there is a “crisis of confidence” around them, with controversies brewing about their funding and enrollments, from Newark to Princeton.

“There are a lot of questions right now, and the more there are, the more difficult it will be in regaining that confidence,” she said.

Jasey’s bill addresses only the authorizer piece of the issue, allowing for up to three higher education institutions to serve as authorizers responsible for reviewing and approving new charters, as well offering support and assistance as they grow.

New Jersey currently only allows the state Department of Education to be an authorizer, something that Christie has decried as limiting the growth.

A similar authorizer bill in the Senate, sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), looked poised for final Senate vote after it won her education committee’s approval in September. But nothing has happened since, with the bill apparently been hung up on how the state would pay the universities to serve the new role. Jasey said her bill would take the money out of the funding that the charter schools receive.

At the same time, some state and local leaders continue to press for local communities to have a direct say in whether new charters open in their districts. A new bill co-sponsored by the chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), would require a local vote before the charter school can open.