For Charter School Bills — an Easy Time in Committee, a Harder Time in the Senate

John Mooney | May 24, 2011 | Education
The administration is only one obstacle to proposed measures, Democratic support may be elusive

Four bills that would revamp how charter schools are reviewed and approved in New Jersey won easy passage yesterday in a key Assembly committee.

Yet the prospect of most of those bills ever becoming law – especially the one that would require local approval of all new charters — is far from assured, as even their supporters admit.

The chief obstacle: Gov. Chris Christie, who has made it abundantly clear that he will block any bill that slows down the spread of charter schools. But even Democratic votes, in particular the Senate and its leadership, remain open questions.

The measures were heard together before the Democratic-led Assembly education committee, filling the Statehouse Annex committee room with a standing-room-only crowd. In each case, all eight Democrats voted in support. The four Republicans for the most part either abstained or voted yes.

Two of the bills would expand how the alternative schools are approved and monitored, with up to three higher-education institutions able to serve as authorizing agents, easing the load on the state education department, which is now the sole authorizer.

Another bill would allow private and parochial schools to be converted to charters.

Local Approval

And the most contentious bill would require local voter approval of any new charter school, making New Jersey just the second state in the country that would have that local veto. (New Hampshire is the first.)

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the education committee and sponsor of the local vote bill, said he was confident the measures would make it through the full Assembly.

“We wouldn’t have posted them today [for vote] if we didn’t think so,” he said.

Yet in conversations afterward and down the hall in the Senate chambers, the odds looked long for at least two of the bills, and even the authorizer bill, which has some traction in the Senate, is no sure bet.

The governor looms large over all these measures, particularly the one that would allow local approval of charters. Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has said the local vote would be the end of new charters.

But there is no assurance the bill has Senate support, either, said some Democratic senators. Others on both sides of the aisle wondered if all the clamor over charter schools will make it more difficult to pass any of the bills in the near future.

Public Scrutiny

“The message out of this is the public is now paying attention and these bills are a
response to that,” said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), who sponsored the authorizer bill. “Where it goes from here, I don’t know, but at least we took the first step.”

State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) is one of the sponsors of the Senate version of the local vote bill, and while she said the votes may be there, she made no promises whether the Democratic leadership would put it to the vote.

“If we got the bill posted, we’d have a decent chance,” she said. “Will we get it posted, that is the question, isn’t it?”

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) is the key voice as chairwoman of the Senate education committee, and several legislators and others said they doubted she would support the local vote bill. Efforts to reach Ruiz after the Senate session yesterday were unsuccessful, but another sponsor said she had yet to back the measure.

“We are working on her to become a sponsor, we’ll leave it at that,” said state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex).

State Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), another bill’s sponsor who also voted for the local vote, said the governor and other Republicans are in a tough spot standing against a bill that would empower local voters.

“It does create a political dilemma for them,” he said.

But Coutinho agreed the prospects were dim. “In this climate, it will be very difficult for that to be signed into law,” he said. “Unfortunately the discussion right now has become very toxic.”

Sitting through the three-plus hours of testimony yesterday afternoon, Carlos Perez, the director of New Jersey Charter Schools Association said he was still doing his own political head-counting that comes with the job.

“I’m trying to figure out all the politics and the chess in all this,” said Perez, who came from the Chicago charter school community that has its own brand of politics. “But I will add, it shouldn’t be about the politics but instead what it takes to create the best schools for kids.”