Assembly Committee Votes to Put Charters Under Local Control

Bill calls for local referendum on any school that wants to be granted a charter in a NJ district

Credit: Amanda Brown
Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex).
The Christie administration’s slowdown in approving charter schools in the suburbs hasn’t slowed the push by Assembly Democrats to tighten controls on all charters — possibly imperiling a slew of schools awaiting their final OK.

The Assembly education committee yesterday moved a bill that would give local voters the right to approve new charters in their home districts. If passed by both houses, the law would make New Jersey only the third state to require charter schools to face a local referendum.

First proposed last year, the new bill has been toughened for the new session. Amendments filed with the bill would make those referendums retroactive for as many as 30 urban and suburban schools awaiting their final charters.

The votes would come after the state’s preliminary approval, but often as much as a year can lapse before the final charter is granted and a school can open.

A new amendment would also require an up-or-down local vote for all schools looking to expand beyond their current charters, a potential blow to some of the larger, more established charters in the state that have added schools to their networks.

“There are folks who want a moratorium on them entirely,” said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), the chief sponsor of the bill and the education committee’s chairman.

“I don’t want to go that far, because I think charter schools do have a place,” he said after the hearing. “But the people need to have a say.”

The big question remains whether the bill, the most controversial of a host of charter school bills first proposed in the Assembly and Senate last year, will ever pass both houses with margins large enough.

Gov. Chris Christie is not expected to support it, but he has lately sent some mixed messages on the extent of charter school growth in the state, and especially in better-performing suburban districts.

His administration approved a small class of eight new charters last month, all of them in cities. And in a town hall meeting in Voorhees, Christie even indicated some support for the local referendum bill — at least for higher-performing communities.

But the local referendum bill may never get to the governor’s desk, since the Senate has yet to take up the measure. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) has previously said she is opposed to the local referendum, contending it would stop charters altogether. She and others have also talked about a more comprehensive rewrite of the charter school law that she said would address many of the concerns.

In the Assembly, a new and powerful player in the debate is state Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), now the Democrats’ majority leader.

His district includes an approved charter school in Cherry Hill that has touched a nerve in South Jersey, as well as a lawsuit from the home school district. The suit contends, among other things, that the new charter would wrongfully draw nearly $2 million from the district’s budget.

Under the latest amendments to the pending bill, the new school — Regis Academic Charter School — would be one of the schools that could be subject to a local referendum retroactively.

Greenwald last night did not speak to Regis specifically, but did acknowledge he has taken an increased interest in the issue since its preliminary approval. Greenwald attended yesterday’s hearing briefly.

“I don’t mind the school being located there, but it shouldn’t be drawing from successful school districts and also taking their money,” Greenwald said in an interview. “In my communities, people are outraged at the governor on this.”

The hearing yesterday included many familiar advocates on each side of the debate: charter school students, parents and leaders warning that the local referendum would kill the movement, district representatives calling it critical to ease the tensions and save local communities from what one called “taxation without representation.”

The vote was predictably along party lines, with six Democrats in favor and two Republicans opposed. One hedge came from state Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), who said he could change his vote on the floor but agree to release the bill.

The committee also passed a second piece of charter legislation that would require tighter reporting of student demographics during each phase of recruitment, acceptance, and retention. It also would tighten the process for the state’s monitoring and potential revocation of charters.

The bill also includes a provision that would sign up all district students in a charter school’s admissions lottery.

Whether that would be workable, even its lead sponsor, Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex) has said is uncertain. But the bulk of the rest of the bill appears to have bipartisan support and the best chance at this point of passage.