Legislature Gets Grade of ‘Incomplete’ on Unresolved Charter-School Issues

John Mooney | July 2, 2014 | Education
Christie, meanwhile, vetoes $3 million in extra aid while long-discussed legislation still hangs fire

Credit: Amanda Brown
Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden)
Despite the political clamor over the issue, the Legislature ended its budget deliberations this week without resolving the debate over charter schools – which were dealt a few surprising setbacks.

In a move that surprised some, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed an extra $3 million in aid to charter schools proposed by Democratic lawmakers. The funding was meant to help address what charter school advocates have called inequitable funding.

In addition, there was no new movement on a new bill that would dictate how charter schools are approved and monitored.

And what has been a pet issue for charter school organizers — easing the state’s requirement that new teachers live in New Jersey – has also stalled.

Most notable was the fate of the funding proposal. Charter schools are funded through local districts at a rate equal to 90 percent of the district’s per-pupil costs.

But charter-school leaders have contended that the results are often uneven, leaving funding for some cities’ charters at closer to 70 percent of district schools. The $3 million in so-called new “adjustment aid” was meant to help close that gap.

Christie’s line-item veto on Monday made the charter-school aid the only education spending to get the red pen — a notable rejection given Christie’s open support of charter schools in the state.

“The governor’s original budget recommendation proposed making sufficient funding available for charter schools,” Christie said in his veto message. “Creating a new category of aid for specifically charter schools is not necessary in order for them to provide a quality education for their students.”

Charter school advocates said they were disappointed by the veto but thanked Democratic lawmakers for seeking to include the extra funds in the budget.

“We appreciate the work of the Legislature, and especially Senator (Paul) Sarlo, who’ve recognized that there is a charter school funding inequity issue,” said Carlos Perez, president of the New Jersey Charter School Association.

“Charter school students do not receive 90 percent of per pupil aid that they should by statute’” he said in an emailed statement. “While we are disappointed this was vetoed, we will continue to work to support the funding needs of public charter school children.”

Changing the residency requirement had been pushed by the charter schools, which say it especially limit the ability to hire staff for schools along New Jersey’s borders with New York and Pennsylvania.

While all schools are affected by the rule, it has especially affected charter schools in cities like Jersey City, Newark and Camden trying to draw teachers from nearby Philadelphia and New York City.

A bill sponsored by state Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), the Assembly’s majority leader and a sponsor of the original residency bill, would have waived the requirement in 10 counties.

But after being passed without public debate in the Senate, the bill stalled in the Assembly this week.

Greenwald yesterday chalked it up to the legislative process.

“We have two years to the Legislative session, and we’ve just completed six months,” Greenwald said yesterday. “It was a bill that came to the table late … and we need some time for people to talk about it.”

He said he is convinced that the bill has merit, even if it makes exceptions to a law that he sponsored.

‘Statistically, I don’t know if the (the initial law) is working,” Greenwald said. “The economy has become an issue, and we want to find ways to bring people back to the state. This is a start.”

Finally, a proposed revision to the state’s two-decade-old charter school law remains in limbo.

Bills pending in the Assembly would broaden the state’s authority in reviewing and approving new charters, while also creating separate authorizing agencies. So far, the bills — which have been discussed for nearly three years — have remained in committee and likely won’t be taken up again at least until this fall.