School’s in Session at Hybrid Charters, Despite Ongoing Legal Challenges

John Mooney | August 31, 2012 | Education
Appeals court dismisses NJEA bid to block schools, but union says it will pursue its case

New Jersey’s experiment with “hybrid” online charter schools has started, even while the legal challenge from the state teachers’ union is also moving ahead.

The first of two hybrid charters, which mix both traditional teaching and online tools, opened in Newark this week — with the 80 sixth graders at Merit Preparatory Charter School receiving their Apple laptops.

The second hybrid, the Newark Preparatory Charter School, will open this coming Thursday. It’s based on the same model: students attend school every day but receive much of their instruction online.

But that doesn’t mean the legal battle over hybrids is over. The New Jersey Education Association had sought to block the schools from opening outright, filing a challenge last week in state appeals court and asking for a stay to stop them.

The NJEA’s long-running argument is that the New Jersey Department of Education has no authority under the state’s charter school law to establish online schools, nor have they shown evidence of providing a quality education.

With the schools themselves filing legal briefs in the case, the appeals court on Friday ruled against the union’s request for a stay, saying its claims that there would be irreparable harm if the schools opened was “purely speculative.”

But the decision did not speak to the merits of the union’s overall argument, and in a conference call with lawyers yesterday, the union decided that it will pursue the challenge — albeit at a much slower pace.

“We would have preferred the stay, but that has nothing to do with the merits of the case, which we still believe in,” said Vincent Giordano, the union’s executive director.

Giordano said the union would seek to have the case heard on an expedited calendar, which will still take four to six months at best. “But that’s not one or two years,” he said.

Last week, the leaders of Merit Prep wrote student’s families to inform them of the legal challenge.

“We believe there is no merit to the action and are vigorously defending the school’s right to serve your family and your student,” said Ben Rayer, the school’s founder, in the letter. “We will be open every day this year and the years to come.”

On Sunday, the day before school opened, he sent another letter to update families on the appellate court’s decision. “We pointed out to the court that the Union action was frivolous, and the judge agreed,” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf also praised the court’s decision to deny the stay.

“We’re not surprised by the court’s decision and are pleased that we can now turn our attention to what matters most — ensuring all of our students have a great start to the school year,” said Barbara Morgan, Cerf’s press secretary.

Lawyers for the union said the decision did not address the merits of the case, ones that they believed still stood. The core of the argument is that the state’s 16-year-old charter school law makes no mention of online education, and even contains some language that appears to prohibit it.

One key reference is a section that requires schools serve students from single or contiguous communities, something not guaranteed with online schools.

The union, among others, also raised the same concerns about the state’s approval of two other online schools. These would be entirely virtual, with students taking their classes from home. The department postponed final charters for the two schools this summer, making any legal challenge moot for now.

But the union also contends that online education is untested and unproven.

“We are not convinced of the educational efficacy and value of these schools,” Giordano said yesterday. “It is still not clear how this will play out, how much contact students will have with teachers, a whole number of issues.”

Meanwhile, Rayer yesterday said the start of Merit Prep on Monday had been smooth and successful, and he was glad the immediate legal challenge was over.

“It’s the first week of school and everything is going great,” he said. “We’d rather focus at this point on running the school and not getting tied up [in legal challenges].

But even as the schools move ahead in both the classrooms and the courts, the matter of online schooling in New Jersey is expected to get some additional political attention.

Legislative leaders in both parties have said that the state’s charter school law needs revisiting on several fronts, and have pledged to take up the issue in the coming session. More specifically, the Joint Committee on the Public Schools has scheduled a hearing for September 12 to take testimony on online schooling.