Charter Schools in Suburbia: More Argument Than Agreement

So-called boutique charter schools are raising concerns about costs and specialized curriculums in some suburban enclaves

This report is part of a joint project between NJ and the network of community news sites to provide both a statewide and a local look at the politics of charter schools in many New Jersey communities, and the tensions that sometimes arise regarding their funding in an age of budget cutbacks.

Suburban charter schools almost sound like a contradiction in terms. After all, charters typically conjure up the image of families seeking alternatives to gritty urban schools.

But while some suburban charters have been in existence from the start in places like Princeton and Morristown, the small, independent schools are becoming a growing presence — and a growing source of tension as well.

A combination of factors are at work, not the least of which is Gov. Chris Christie’s push to expand charters statewide. Much of the attention has been on so-called boutique schools, with narrow focuses like Hebrew or Mandarin. That specialization is raising concerns in host communities as to why they have to support special-interest institutions.

But on the eve of this week’s budget votes, ongoing recession fears and tight public resources that have left everyone struggling for money underlie the tension. School districts in suburban and urban areas generally pay charters 90 percent of the district’s per-pupil costs.

Not every district is grumbling, by any means, but the complaints in districts like Princeton, East Brunswick and South Brunswick are getting louder.

NJ Spotlight and have teamed up to examine the issues that have surfaced over the growing charter school movement in New Jersey, especially in suburban districts.

It’s a tension that’s not likely to ease, with few remedies to the cash crunch on the horizon besides some proposals that would allow districts to block the charters altogether. All this with a public yet to make up its mind about charters, either, at least according to the most recent opinion polls.

A Rutgers-Eagleton Poll this month found a strong majority saying charters do as well or better than traditional public schools, but split on whether they should expand. A new Quinnipiac Poll last week found a majority opposed to such expansion.

Whatever the details, charter advocates have clearly taken notice and are thinking anew about how to address the concerns, especially in the suburbs where a fraction of their membership is now dominating the airwaves.

“It’s something we’re hearing a lot more of,” said Carlos Perez, executive director of the New Jersey Charter School Association.

“But it goes back to what is the intent of charter schools,” he said. “The whole intent is to introduce innovations into public education, and you can’t just have that in some communities and not in others.”

Still, that’s not an argument going over real well in districts writing a check, roughly 90 percent of their spending per pupil but rarely amounting to that much in terms of actual cost reductions.

In South Brunswick, a new Mandarin-immersion charter remains in jeopardy in the face of local opposition. A Hebrew-language school in East Brunswick is costing taxpayers $1.7 million and faces its own protracted legal fight. In Red Bank, it’s $1.6 million from the budget.

In Princeton, school officials who have been among the most outspoken critics estimate that the district will pay nearly $5 million once a second approved charter school is operating in 2012. That second school would cater to those want a dual-language immersion in Mandarin.

“It does not fall into this myth of ‘the money follows the child,'” superintendent Judith Wilson told Princeton Patch. “When those dollars leave our budget, it’s not a direct deduction on our side.”

Norma Byers, the head of the Princeton Charter School, responded in kind in an interview with Patch: “They’re trying to make people believe that we take their money. But it’s not their money, it’s tax dollars.”

How to resolve this remains a tougher challenge. The funding arrangement is unlikely to change, with no proposals on the table to significantly alter the share the districts pay.

Christie has provided slightly more state money to charters through specific programs, but his proposals for expanding charter schools do little to expand their overall funding. His office’s draft legislation — yet to be filed — barely addresses the funding standoff.

State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) has been caught in the middle. Jasey, a member of the Assembly education committee, is drafting legislation that would allow for the expansion of charters but also the accountability on their operations.

She said she recognizes the value of charter schools, especially in communities where the quality of the traditional schools are in question, but also is hearing from voters worried at the dollars leaving their home districts.

Two of the Mandarin-immersion charters are proposed for Jasey’s legislative district, which encompasses highly touted Millburn, Livingston and South Orange/Maplewood schools.

“I have talked to my constituents in some of these towns, and they say, ‘Yes, in a perfect world this might be nice,'” Jasey said. “But right now, they are struggling to maintain their programs, and they see this as a real threat.”

A bill filed by the committee’s chairman, Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), would require a local referendum approve any new charter school in the community. It would be the only such requirement in the country, according to Perez.

“I have heard nothing but positive responses, and I suspect it will happen,” Diegnan said last week of his bill’s prospects in the legislature.

The tougher question is whether it would ever get the signature of the governor, who is seeking to loosen some of the reigns on charters, not tighten them.

Maybe there are lessons in one charter school where relations have approved over the years.

For Unity Charter School in Morristown, the tough times came in the school’s beginning a decade ago, when the local district went to court to challenge its enrollment as not being as diverse as the district’s.

“We lost that case… so that was that,” said Linda Pollack, the Morris School District’s board president.

“After that, everything was fine,” she continued in an interview with Morristown Patch. “We of course believe we offer a first-rate public school education, but there are people — and they have a right to — who choose the charter school for whatever reason.”

And while the annual payment of $700,000 is not small change, she said, “it has not been an overwhelming burden. It isn’t something we cannot accommodate.”

To learn how charters in your area are performing — or all schools, for that matter — click on NJ Spotlight’s School Report Card.