Fine Print: Diegnan’s Charter School Bill

John Mooney | May 22, 2013 | Education
Assemblyman drops bill, which called for central review board and local approval for new and expanded charters

What it is: After considerable discussions, State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) this week dropped his bill for revamping the state’s 18-year-old charter school law. Assembly Bill A-4177 includes a host of new procedures and standards for the state’s burgeoning charter school movement. Diegnan was primary sponsor; no other primary or co-sponsors had been posted.

What it means: Diegnan chairs the Assembly’s education committee and is the lower chamber’s most prominent voice on school policy, so his vision for overseeing charters carries a lot of weight with its Democratic leadership. His latest bill contains a few of the ideas he’s been espousing for the better part of a year, including the creation of a new nine-member charter-school review board. It also pushes one of his more controversial positions: local voter approval of all new or expanded charters.

Its prospects: Diegnan has said he wants a consensus measure to be acted on to replace the 1995 law, but he has been saying this for a while. An equally important if not more important voice belongs to his parliamentary equal in the Senate, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the upper chamber’s education committee. She has said that she wants to work with Diegnan on a new charter law, and the two have met over the bill. Still, Ruiz has shown no support for local approval of charters, and she has pressed for multiple authorizing organizations outside the state Department of Education.

New review board: Diegnan has supported colleges or universities serving as authorizers of new and existing charters, but the new bill instead puts the responsibility with a review board operating inside the state Department of Education. The board would be appointed by the governor and Legislature, and serve as an extra set of eyes looking at new applications and monitoring existing schools. The final decisions would still rest with the commissioner, but the board would be separately staffed and funded to conduct annual reports as to whether the schools meet requirements for achievement, finances, and access. The board could apply sanctions and impose corrective actions as well, short of outright revocation.

The deal-breaker Diegnan has not given up on his proposal to give local voters a powerful say on the opening of charter schools, requiring an affirmative vote at the polls. That also has been a big demand of some advocates who have maintained that charter schools are being imposed on local communities that, in turn, are responsible for paying for them. Such a bill easily passed the Assembly last year. But beyond even Ruiz’s past opposition to such a requirement — she was on a charter school’s founding board in Newark — the odds against it are far longer in the Senate, and there is virtually no chance that such a provision would get the signature of Gov. Chris Christie, a big charter booster.

Not just about votes and boards: The rewrite of the state’s charter school law is no small feat, and Diegnan’s bill speaks to a host of issues and procedures for the alternative schools that now number more than 80 in the state. He would slightly modify their funding, for one, allowing them still to collect 90 percent of the per-pupil costs from the host districts but opening them to the cuts that the districts themselves may face. In addition, the bill would require charters to openly disclose their financing, their applicants and enrollees, and their employees and consultants. It streamlines the application process, and it would require charters to face the same monitoring requirements as district schools.

What’s still not in the bill: The bill does not address the prospect of online or virtual charters, three of which that have been proposed for New Jersey but have yet to win final approval from the Christie administration. Diegnan has said that he wants that issue to be addressed separately in its own bill. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools has held hearings on the issue as well, and its chairs have said they want to seek their own legislation.