Assemblyman Unveils Much-Anticipated Final Draft of Charter Legislation

Singleton seeks to balance flexibility and accountability in revising 20-year-old law governing alternative schools

State Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington)
A new bill will soon be added to the debate over how – and how much – to revise the state’s nearly 20-year-old charter school law.

State Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) has completed a final draft of the bill, which would create a single authorizing board to review, approve and monitor charter schools, in addition to the state Department of Education.

His long-awaited and closely-watched legislation would also add some new guidance to help charter schools follow the demographic patterns of the districts they serve, although it contains no explicit requirements for schools to take that approach.

The bill would also give the charters more flexibility and potential funding, creating a state loan fund for charter schools and offering them first-refusal rights to vacated public school-district buildings.

In one of the most debated components, his bill would not require a local vote for final approval of charters, as called for by some local school advocates and in other proposed legislation. Singleton’s bill would, however, require public hearings on charter applications.

Singleton said he will file the bill at the Assembly’s next quorum session. He said he expects considerable debate and said there will probably be compromises reached with backers of other proposed legislation.

Already, some critics were saying yesterday that the bill would be unacceptable and allow further segregation of students.

Singleton serves on the Assembly Education Committee, whose chairman, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, has proposed his own changes calling for far more restrictions and more local say.

The subject of considerable discussion over the last few months and already revised more than once, Singleton’s bill had been widely anticipated as one that would be more supportive of the charter school movement, which has often come under fire during the last four years under Gov. Chris Christie.

Singleton has met with players on both sides of the debate, including leaders of the New Jersey Education Association. But he is also said to be allied with state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate Education Committee chair who is developing her own charter school bill.

“The senator and I have talked a great deal about the need to modernize the law,” Singleton said yesterday.

Ruiz declined to comment until she had reviewed the bill.

Singleton said he hoped his bill would balance accountability and flexibility, while stopping short of adding many more requirements for schools that are meant to be innovative.

For instance, he said the bill would encourage charter schools to “look at their communities and make sure they are reflective of their populations.”

But when asked why his proposal doesn’t set specific enrollment requirements, he said, “It’s tough to require something like that.”

As for the local vote that many advocates have called for, Singleton said requiring public hearings would be a more politically palatable option. The Christie administration has all but rejected the idea of local votes on charter applications, which charter advocates have said it would significantly damage the chances for opening new schools.

“There is no real opportunity for input public now, and we have at least moved it forward,” Singleton said. “I’m open to discussions of other ideas, but this at least advances it.”

Like other pending charter legislation, Singleton’s bill does not address the funding and does not deal with virtual or online charter schools.

“The jury is still out on that,” he said about online schools. “It’s not something that I expect to be a component of this.”

He said he looks forward to working with other legislators, as well as advocacy groups, to improve his legislation or even meld it with others.

“I’m hopeful at least some of the tenets of this will be part of any compromise,” he said.

But there is sure to be considerable pushback. A leader of one of the groups that met with Singleton said the new bill does little to ease what she called the pervasive segregation in charter schools.

“We have had very productive conversations with Assemblyman Singleton about the segregation by race, income, special needs and English proficiency between charter and traditional public schools, which the current charter school law does not address,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a leader of Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots group that has been a prominent voice in the charter debate. “Unfortunately, this legislation would only make that segregation worse.”

She said the group would fight the bill “with everything we have at our disposal.”