New Session, Charter School Law Still Broken?

John Mooney | January 17, 2012 | Education
As Christie administration decides on new charters, debate continues about how to fix 15-year-old law

The Christie administration is preparing to announce a new round of charter schools this week, but a big question remains. What is the state going to do about a charter law that even supporters are calling one of the nation’s weakest?

The latest criticism came from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which in its annual report released yesterday placed New Jersey’s law 31st out of 42nd overall. It cited the lack of strong accountability measures tied to performance, weak funding, and limited approval and review process.

Charter supporters and critics alike agree that the current law, not to mention the state’s capacity to enforce it, has grown increasingly inadequate. Among the variety of bills to strengthen it is one that would increase the number of authorizers that can review, approve, and monitor new charters.

Another that charter supporters don’t particularly like would allow local communities vote on whether a charter can be approved.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education is expected to announce a new class of charters later this week, drawing from an original applicant pool of more than 40, which is sure to rekindle the debate about the merits of charters in general.

The newest class may not be a big one, since state officials said they will use the same standards as in the last round, which saw just four schools approved. But even that caused a stir, when one of the four was a suburban Camden County charter that set off an outcry — and one legal challenge — from local officials.

The flaws in the current charter law are likely to be brought up today, as the legislature starts its new session and Gov. Chris Christie gives his State of the State. A half-dozen charter bills have been held over from last session, and state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate education committee, plans on introducing another.

Christie said last week said that the charter law needs “sweeping changes. The current laws act as a deterrent to growth, rather than foster expansion of quality charter schools,” he said at a Camden event.

But after more than a year of discussion and debate, there appears little consensus on exactly what that legislation will be, with some proposals moving in opposite directions depending on what critics or supporters prefer.

The bill to add authorizers has wide support, but has been held up, in part, over how to pay for it. The local-approval law is strongly opposed by the administration. One proposed compromise is limiting local vote to all but the lowest-performing districts.

An Assembly sponsor of more than one of the bills said yesterday that he remains hopeful that some package of bills can pass, maybe as part of one comprehensive rewrite of the 15-year-old law.

“I am cautiously optimistic we can get some progressive reforms in charter school law, as well as tenure,” said state Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex). “I have to say I am extremely frustrated at the slow pace of this, but you have to keep at it.”

Despite demands for charter reform, the first order of business in the Senate appears to be tenure reform. The education committee is considering both tenure and charter bills, and Ruiz said tenure legislation would come first.

Still, Ruiz pre-filed a new bill on Wednesday, the second day of the session, that would at least increase accountability, requiring greater data on both those accepted and those on the waiting list, further budgetary transparency, and specific mandates on how and when a charter could be revoked. A similar bill was also filed by state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer).

But the Assembly also is no guarantee of changes one way or the other. State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) remains as chairman of the Assembly’s education committee and has been a strong proponent of the local vote legislation. He also backs even stronger accountability measures than those being proposed by Ruiz.

What happens next is something of a guessing game among those who have followed the debate most closely. Grassroots group Save Our Schools NJ, which has long been critical of the current law and protective of district schools, is hopeful about the local vote bill.

“We think the momentum is overwhelming,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a spokesperson for SOS NJ. “We’re hearing that it will happen. The legislature and administration want this resolved.”