Fine Print: Charter-School Bill Chock Full of Details — Some New, Some Familiar

Ruiz’s legislation notable for setting up second authorizing body as well as calling for performance contracts and NJ residency mandate

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)
What it is: State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) last week held her first hearing on her bill, S-2319, — the proposed Charter School Authorizer and Accountability Act — to revamp the state’s nearly two-decade-old charter school law. The law would reshape the way the state approves charter schools and monitors them, including the creation of a new charter authorizing board. The law also calls for new rules for existing charters to follow regarding student performance and access.

What it means: The bill is the Senate’s first serious foray into new charter legislation, after a number of bills proposed in the state Assembly. Two years after she led work on the state’s teacher tenure and evaluation law, Ruiz’s involvement in revamping the charter law probably gives approval its best chance yet.

While she is known as a friend of charters and is a former charter board member, Ruiz’s proposal nonetheless includes some measures that advocates hardly applaud, and there are lots of details that could hold up the bill.

New board: The proposed nine-member authorizing board appointed by the governor and Legislature would seek and review proposals for new charter schools. Its involvement would be in addition to the state Department of Education’s current review authority. The State Board of Education would oversee the new board, which would receive $250,000 in initial funding.

New process: Under a new “request for proposal” process, the state would solicit charter proposals for specific districts or specific needs. Instead of the current process in which proposals are sought statewide, the new board or state could specifically ask for charter applications for schools in only one specified community, with the option of requesting proposals for charters meeting specific needs or serving specific populations.

Not-so-new requirements: The bill includes specific requirements calling for charters to meet certain performance goals and to provide access to students with disabilities and other special needs. It would also require schools to disclose those numbers to the public. The state currently has such disclosure requirements but compliance has been spotty.

Longer terms: The bill would extend the term of initial charter approvals from the current four years to five years, with up to 10 additional years once renewed.

New Jersey residents only: The state currently has a residency rule for all public employees. Charter schools have been among the most critical of having that requirement apply to them, saying it hinders efforts to recruit top teachers in places like New York and Philadelphia. But the bill would require all charter-school employees or those who work at charter schools, even under different employees, to have their principal residence in New Jersey.

School facilities: In one of the most important provisions, the law would give charter schools first rights to use of vacant school facilities in a community. Difficulty in securing facilities has been among the biggest challenges for charter schools, and they have pressed for such privilege.

Local say, just not binding: The bill calls for a public hearing process for any new charter applications or renewals, but not much beyond that. While such public input would be taken into consideration in any approval, this is well short of provisions supported by many Democratic legislators — especially in the Assembly — that would require a local referendum or vote on all new charter schools.

Key hurdles: Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, has a bill that would give local communities having final say on new charters. It is unclear if he would post a charter-school bill in his committee without that provision. However, state Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), a member of Diegnan’s committee, has filed a bill that is closer to Ruiz’s legislation.

Other voices: Speaking to the issue’s importance in the education community, the Senate hearing saw virtually every major education group testifying, from the New Jersey Education Association, the New Jersey School Boards Association and the Education Law Center, to a number of advocacy groups such as the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, the Garden State Coalition of Schools, Save Our Schools New Jersey, and JerseyCAN.

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