Charter Schools Sue State, Claiming They’ve Been Shortchanged

John Mooney | November 30, 2011 | Education
Latest development only adds to the tensions between charters and the districts that host them

A group of Jersey City charter schools have sued the Christie administration to correct what they say has been a stark underfunding of their schools, throwing a twist into the ongoing debate over how New Jersey’s charters are paid for.

The four charter schools — Learning Community, Golden Door, Soaring Heights, and Ethical Community charter — have petitioned acting education commissioner Chris Cerf to address what has been a longstanding disparity in the how Jersey City and several other districts’ charter schools are funded.

In the petition, the schools contend that they are put at a unique disadvantage because of Jersey City’s massive property tax abatements, which draw the school district additional state aid – called adjustment aid — that is not shared with the charters.

As a result, the charters receive less than the 90 percent of the district’s per-pupil costs, as mandated under the state’s charter school law. Other charter schools similarly affected are in Asbury Park, Hoboken, and Red Bank.

The case also points up the continuing and unresolved disputes in how New Jersey charter schools are funded in general, one that not only irks charter schools but also the districts that foot most of the bill.

These disputes have dogged the Christie administration as it seeks to rewrite the state’s charter school law and expand the experimental schools, especially in lower-performing, urban districts such as Jersey City. And now Cerf is being asked to make a ruling that could appease the charters but add still more tension to the situation.

The Jersey City issue is not new, as the city’s charter schools have long argued for additional funding to address the disparity due to adjustment aid. And the administration this year did provide an additional $5.1 million for the Jersey City and other affected charters to offset some of the shortfall.

But representatives of the charters argued that the one-time appropriation does not address the fundamental flaw in the funding law that will leave them shortchanged each year.

“We’re obviously hugely grateful for [the additional funds], but it comes from an appropriation and is hardly sustainable,” said Shelley Skinner, a board member at Learning Community Charter School and longtime charter advocate who has pressed hardest for the funding.

“We’re required to provide a thorough and efficient education like everyone else, but we don’t have the resources,” she said. “Parents didn’t just waive their right to that when they enroll in a charter, and that is what the state is asking them to do.”

The funding of charters has been particularly problematic in urban districts, where the traditional schools have received billions in additional aid under the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings to provide what the state constitution calls a “thorough and efficient” education. But districts have not necessarily been required to pass a proportionate share of that additional aid to charter schools.

The existing School Funding Reform Act aimed to address that, but the adjustment aid continued to be left out of the calculation. For some districts, there is not much adjustment aid to start with, so the disparities are much smaller. Others like Jersey City are not as fortunate.

“With the new funding formula that eliminated the separate Abbott funding, we hoped this would go away,” said Rick Pressler, a program director with the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “But it simply took a new form with different district winners and losers with the adjustment aid.”

Pressler said the issue could be addressed with a simple tweak in the law to include the adjustment aid in the charter school funding calculation. “It would literally require adding two words and a comma to the statute,” he said.

But unable to win that concession, the Jersey City charters said they will rely on the legal process, starting with the petition to Cerf and likely determination by an administrative law judge.

Cerf this week said he could not comment on the case due to it being pending litigation.