Now There Are Four: Assembly Speeds Two More Charter Bills Through Committee

John Mooney | June 28, 2011 | Education
Even if bills pass Assembly, Senate has made it clear it will take a much slower approach

The Assembly yesterday moved two legislative proposals to change how New Jersey’s charter schools are approved and reviewed, but the Senate looks like it won’t be moving so fast.

With little discussion, the Assembly’s Budget Committee easily approved two charter school bills yesterday: one would allow parochial schools to convert to charters, the other would expand the number of authorizing agencies.

Both will go to the full Assembly for vote on Wednesday, along with two others that would reform other aspects of the state’s charter school process. The most controversial would require a local vote of approval for any new charter school, a proposal that Gov. Chris Christie is almost certain to veto.

Yet even if all are approved by the Assembly, the Senate appears poised to take a much slower road, with an influential senator saying that she is planning public hearings on these and other charter school legislation over the summer.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, said her committee would not act on any of the measures until a fuller discussion can be held.

She said there may be two dozen bills altogether that deal with charter schools in one form or another, including her own competing charter authorizer bill. The Christie administration has also proposed a sweeping charter reform bill that opens up the way for charter schools even further.

“I want to discuss all the bills being considered,” she said in an interview. “We need to have a comprehensive review that will address all the issues together.”

Long Odds

Assembly sponsors of the charter bills said they were aware of the long odds for their proposals this week, the last chance to enact the measures before much of the legislature takes a summer break. Few expect much legislative action in the fall, either, with the November elections for every seat in both the Assembly and the Senate.

State Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex) said he was worried by the inaction, as more charter schools start operation in the fall and still more are likely to be approved by the state Department of Education (DOE).

“There is a concern if the state continues to race ahead with these,” he said. “This is a critical issue, the education of our children, and charter schools should be part of the mix. But they need to be done right.”

State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) looked resigned to the news that Ruiz would be holding summer hearings, and she added that she doubted the local approval bill would ever become law with this governor.

“But just because he will veto it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t post it,” she said.

Charter school advocates said they were hopeful that Ruiz’s slower pace would allow for smarter legislation in the end. Some of them were planning a Statehouse press conference today to urge the Assembly to vote against the bills.

“We recognize the need to reform the charter school act, but doing it piecemeal doesn’t make sense,” said Carlos Perez, executive director of the New Jersey Charter School Association. “We need to look at this as one piece of legislation.”