Fine Print: Voter Approval on Charter Schools

John Mooney | March 22, 2012 | Education
The Assembly passes a bill requiring local approval for charters, but the measure goes nowhere in the Senate

What it is: The bill, A-1877, requiring a local referendum on any new charter school opening in a community was approved by the full Assembly last week on a largely party line vote, the furthest the controversial bill has progressed. The vote was 46-27, with all the Democratic leadership in favor.

What it isn’t: Likely to pass and be signed into law anytime soon. A companion bill in the Senate is not even posted for a hearing, and there is little enthusiasm so far from the Democratic leadership in that chamber.

What didn’t happen: While the Assembly passed this bill in the last voting session before the budget break, it did not post another, less controversial bill that would have placed greater reporting and other requirements on charters.

What’s holding up the referendum bill: The Senate has always been a tougher sell on this proposal, one that the Christie administration also staunchly opposes as potentially blocking any new charters from opening. The Senate bill has been referred to the Senate education committee, and its chair, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), has been among those voicing skepticism while not committing either way. Last Thursday, following the Assembly vote, Ruiz said she wants to get to the concerns of local input through a broader rewrite of the state’s charter school law.

Ruiz quote: “I would like to sooner rather than later look at the whole charter authorization process to ensure we are promoting quality charters and the department is authorizing the most appropriate people to open up schools where there is definitive need.”

Would she support a local vote as part of that? “I understand the genesis of the concerns, and in the charter revision, we have to include components that secure a place for the public’s weigh-in in a very real way.”

With a binding vote? “I don’t have language to a bill to comment.”

A prime sponsor’s argument: State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) is one of the primary sponsors and has maintained that local districts should have a binding say on how their money is spent. By state law, the district must pay for each one of its students who attend a charter school at roughly 90 percent of their per-pupil costs.

But the prognosis isn’t good: “I’ve been trying since last session, last fall and before the lame duck session, to get this to a vote, but I haven’t been successful,” Buono said yesterday. “At this point, the chances are slim, but I won’t give up.”

What’s the problem? “Ask the chairman of the Senate committee,” Buono said of Ruiz.

What about a compromise? Another Senate bill would put the vote in the school boards’ hands. There have also been behind-the-scenes discussions about amending the bill to selectively apply the requirement of a local vote. For instance, districts that are low performing by certain standards would not have the vote, while the highest performing would.

Buono’s retort: “I think that would be problematic. I think that would just cause some people to feel disenfranchised, and I don’t think that’s acceptable.” Other proponents have voiced the same misgivings.

What happens next: The Senate goes back to its committee schedule in May, when and if it is has completed its review of the annual state budget. But Ruiz has said even if this bill did proceed, her first order of business is finishing her work on a tenure reform bill and bringing that to a vote. She has said she hopes for a vote on tenure by June. That bill’s prospects in the Assembly are far less certain.