Charter-School Reform, On Back Burner, Starts to Heat Up Again

John Mooney | February 28, 2013 | Education
Democratic lawmakers in state Assembly, Senate both drafting new legislation

charter kids
Talk of revising the state’s charter-school law is picking up again, with one major player now saying that he plans to have a bill ready by spring or early summer.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, said this week that he has sent the broad outline of a bill to the Office of Legislative Services. Provisions include adding organizations able to approve new schools and tightening accountability for existing ones.

“It will be start to finish,” Diegnan said, “covering the whole life of a charter school.”

Diegnan’s progress on his Assembly bill comes as talks continue in the Senate regarding a bill being crafted by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex).

And Gov. Chris Christie isn’t dropping the matter, either – in his budget address on Tuesday, he reiterated his support for expanding charter schools. His fiscal 2014 spending plan includes an increase in the state’s modest aid package for certain charter schools, from $13.1 million to $16 million.

The printed budget summary released along with Christie’s address also repeated many of the key planks in his charter-school platform. Among them are recruitment of charter management companies, including for-profit companies, and expansion of authorizing agencies to include both higher-education institutions and local school boards.

Meanwhile, Christie’s administration is expected to rule on more than a dozen charter renewals this week, another test in its own vows to make the schools more accountable.

The continued inclusion of charter-school reforms in the budget summary heartened advocates who have pressed for a rewrite of the state’s 18-year-old charter law.

“This is exciting,” said Carlos Perez, executive director of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “We’ve talked about the need for a charter reform bill for some time now. The administration is absolutely correct that a strong charter law is the pathway to high quality charter schools.”

Others with a different vision for revising the charter-school law continued to oppose Christie’s approach and policies.

“What the overwhelming majority of New Jersey residents want added to the charter law is local approval of new charter schools and of charter expansions, more transparency and accountability, and an end to the terrible segregation between charters and traditional public schools,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a founder of Save Our Schools-New Jersey.

“Instead, the Governor is proposing failed for-profit charter schools and an increase in charter schools being forced on unwilling communities,” she said.

Diegnan, who has sided more with the positions of SOS and other critics of the Christie administration’s policies, said he would continue to press for tighter controls.

For instance, Diegnan said his bill would include a controversial provision requiring a vote by local residents before any new charter school is approved to open.

“I remain a big advocate for that,” he said.

Local approval of charters has been a contentious idea over the last couple of years, passing in the Assembly last year but not even getting posted in the Senate. The administration has signaled it would staunchly oppose such a measure.

Diegnan said he still was wrestling with one of the trickiest aspects of the state’s charter debate: virtual charter schools.

Two virtual schools have received preliminary approval from the state, but they were put on hold last year and their fate is still in limbo going into the next year, with the state’s existing law barely addressing them. The state’s dominant teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, has gone to court to try to block them as well.

Diegnan has not opposed virtual schools outright, but said he wants specific regulations to address them, possibly including limits on enrollment and geographic coverage. But he said getting even that far has been difficult.

“Virtuals have been a huge challenge in this,” he said, “even just getting a grasp of the definition of them.”

In the end, he said, he expects to have a bill closely aligned with the legislation proposed by Ruiz, adding that he has had discussions with the Democrat from Newark.

“The more people on board, the better, same as we did with the tenure law last year,” he said, alluding to Ruiz’s tenure bill, which ultimately won unanimous approval. “It will never become law if we are circulating different bills around.”