Charters Continue to Stir Up Controversy — in Senate, Court, and Home Districts

John Mooney | October 13, 2011 | Education
In the suburbs, experimental schools end up in court, as plaintiffs and defendants

In a rare election-season session, the Senate education committee has scheduled for today a hearing on a series of contentious bills that would place new limits and rules on charter schools in the state.

But it remains a guessing game at this point as to whether any of them will pass, even as more contentious moves continue to take place outside of Trenton, as local communities contest charter schools in their midst and charters fight back.

The state earlier this month announced the approval of just four new charter schools for next year, an unexpectedly low count that some attributed to the growing backlash to the expansion of the experimental schools in both urban and suburban communities.

But the new approvals did little to slow the concerns, as the approval of a new charter school in Cherry Hill –- the lone suburban charter of the four — drew a quick rebuke from the Cherry Hill school district.

In an announcement and seven-minute video posted on the district’s website, its superintendent and school board president said the district would challenge the approval of the Regis Academy Charter School on a number of familiar grounds, including that the new school would draw close to $2 million from the district.

“The bottom line here in Cherry Hill is we believe our children receive a quality education within the 19 schools across our district,” said Superintendent Maureen Reusche. “Our number one question — with the approval of the charter school — is where is the need.”

Meanwhile, a charter school that has been approved in Mercer County has taken three districts to court for spending public funds to block their school from ever opening.

The oral arguments in that case between Princeton International Academy Charter School and the districts of Princeton Regional, West Windsor-Plainsboro, and South Brunswick began this week before an administrative law judge.

The school’s founders, said its lawyer, William Harla, “are nothing more than a group of parents using their own money to fund a charter school because they believe that a Mandarin-language immersion school will be of benefit to their children.”

The administrative law judge said she would take the case under advisement. Her ruling goes to acting education commissioner Chris Cerf for his determination. Cerf would also rule on an appeal in the Cherry Hill case.

All this, while Cerf and legislators continue to grapple with how best to address the growing concerns, starting with the legislation to be heard — but not voted on — today. The Senate committee has said that the bills would be for discussion purposes only.

The bills in the Senate — all approved in the Assembly — would place a series of new rules on charter schools, including one bill to expand the number of authorizing agencies to approve and oversee charters and another to place new requirements on how charters recruit, enroll, and retain students.

Probably the most controversial of the measures would be one that would require local voters to approve any new charter schools within their borders, a proposal that has been strongly opposed by the Christie administration and charter school advocates.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), who chairs the education committee, has also said she opposes the measure, but said recently that she was willing to hear all of the proposals as part of what could be a broader rewriting of the state’s 1997 charter law.

“It will be for discussion purposes, so we can engage in a conversation,” Ruiz said in late September, of the upcoming hearing. “We need to look at what has been working in the law, and what hasn’t been working.”

The hearing is expected to be well-attended by the various lobbyists and advocates on different sides of the issue. Among them will be Carlos Perez, president of the state’s charter schools association, who said he is uncertain where the legislation is headed.

“I wish I had a crystal ball,” he said yesterday.

“What is concerning is where this is not going,” Perez continued. “We had been talking about authorizing, funding, facilities, needs. But now what we’re seeing is a lot of reaction to the growth of charter schools, and not so much to the how we can improve this sector of our schooling.”

One lobbyist representing the suburban districts said she, too, was uncertain on where the discussion would lead. She said the tension between charters and their host districts seem intractable, at least for now.

“It’s certainly not going away as an issue,” said Lynne Srickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools. “But rather than pitting a community against itself, something needs to be talked through to get this off the dime.”