Fine Print: Assembly Bill 3356

John Mooney | June 20, 2011 | Education
Proposed measure would tighten many of the accountability requirements for charter schools, including rules governing enrollment

Primary sponsors: Assemblyman Albert Coutinho and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, both Democrats from Essex County.

Summary: The bill would strengthen many of the accountability requirements for charter schools, including new rules for student enrollment and selection and for the review and revocation of charters.

What it means: After all of this spring’s talk in Trenton about the pros and cons of charter schools, this Assembly bill probably has the best chance to actually pass before the end of the current legislative session. There are no guarantees, by a long shot. But compared with bills that either would significantly limit charter schools or would free them, this bill seeks mostly to add regulations that likely face the least resistance.

What it would do: The bill has many features, but the most significant changes center on the issue of who attends charter schools and how the schools are held accountable for that enrollment. The bill would also subject charter schools to possible funding reductions if a local district’s budget is rejected. It also calls for monitoring procedures similar to those faced by local districts.

Lottery fever: One of the more novel ideas is to automatically give every child in the charter’s home district a slot in the school’s enrollment lottery. Now, students must sign up for the lottery if there are more applicants than available seats, and some critics have contended it leads to a self-selection by excluding children from families unaware of the options. Under the bill, the child can still opt not to attend the school if chosen.

Too novel? Even Coutinho, the prime sponsor, said this provision may sound better on paper than in reality. Parents would need to be notified at all stages of the process, and questions abound as to who would be held responsible if they are not. He said it is one piece of the legislation that may not survive. “While it’s a good way to eliminate any foul play, it could be a logistical nightmare,” he said this weekend.

What will survive: The bill places stiff reporting requirements on who does attend the schools, with the charters required to post and update information on the race, needs and socio-economic status of their students. The chief criticism of charter schools has been that they appear to have smaller numbers of students who come with special needs, including disabilities or limited English skills. A school’s charter could be revoked if it is found to be discriminating.

Local support: The bill has garnered the support of the fledgling grassroots organization that has led a growing backlash against charter schools, especially in suburban communities. The Save Our Schools group plans three simultaneous rallies tomorrow night in Millburn, South Brunswick and Highland Park to press for passage of this bill, as well as another that would require a local vote on any new charter.

Status: The bill passed the Assembly education committee unanimously. It has yet to be posted in the Senate.

Still a long shot: With pensions and benefit reform dominating the Statehouse for the next week, and the fate of the state budget on tap for the week after that, legislator aren’t expected to take on many controversial measures before the session ends June 30. That’s why this bill may make it through. “Given everyone can claim at least some wins on it, it has the best opportunity to pass,” Coutinho said.