Local Say for Charters Continues to Dog Proposed Measures

As charters expand into suburbs, local districts want to approve any new schools

With legislators next week slated to take up the issue of how New Jersey’s charter schools are approved and monitored, schools districts continue to press for a local vote on any new charter.

The delegates of the New Jersey School Boards Association voted overwhelmingly on Saturday in favor of a resolution that requires any new charter be first approved by local voters.

“It’s not that we’d like to stop charters or control them, but there was a feeling we would like to have more local say,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the association.

He said the vote of 115 delegates was 95 percent in favor of the resolution, which speaks specifically to a pending bill sponsored by state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) that would require the local vote. The resolution was put forward by the Princeton Regional board of education, which has been in the forefront of the debate over charter schools of late, especially as they expand into suburban districts.

The resolution has created a new challenge for state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), sponsor of a separate, more sweeping bill that changes how charters are approved and monitored but so far does not provide for a direct local say.

The bill will have its next hearing on May 23 before the Assembly Education Committee, of which Jasey is a member.

As the hearing approaches, Jasey’s bill continues to go through changes. The latest version would allow for up to three institutions of higher education to serve as authorizers, in addition to the state Department of Education (DOE).

The bill would also pay for the authorizers through a charge to existing charter schools, equivalent to roughly 3 percent of their local funding, although Jasey said that amount is still being discussed.

Authorizers serve as the state’s agents in reviewing and approving new applicants, as well as monitoring the schools once opened and deciding on the charter’s renewal every five years. The state DOE is currently the only authorizer in New Jersey, one of only four states with just one authorizer.

Not only does Jasey’s bill not include a local vote on new charters, but also it would not allow local boards to serve as authorizers.

Jasey last night said she worried that expanding authorizing roles to too many places. “If we open it up to anybody and everybody, I think we’d have applications that aren’t vetted well and eventually schools closing,” she said.

And as for direct local votes, Jasey said she believed the new authorizing bill would improve the process enough so that local districts would feel more comfortable.

“I understand where they are coming from, but I feel it would polarize the community and politicize the process,” she said.

How the Christie administration reacts to these latest developments is yet to be seen. The administration has put forward draft legislation that would include even more authorizers and also institute “performance contracts” for new charters.

That bill would allow local districts to be authorizers, as well as ease the way for parents and teachers to convert traditional schools to charters. But it has drawn the line on local votes. Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said as much on Thursday at a forum hosted by NJ Spotlight, stating that he would strongly oppose a binding vote, contending that it would likely be the end of any new charters.

Jasey said this issue could be risky for the governor, given that much of his Republican base is in suburban communities where the tensions are highest. She said in many of those places, communities have already become quite polarized, and she pointed out that she is attending a community forum tonight in Christie’s hometown of Livingston that will center on two charter schools proposed to serve the district’s students.

“This really has the potential to blow up, if it hasn’t already,” she said.