Online learning in New Jersey’s charter schools got a boost from the courts yesterday, but so did the debate over how much innovation the state should allow.
In a long-awaited decision, a state appellate court yesterday strongly rejected a challenge by the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, against the state’s 2012 approval of two Newark charter schools that rely heavily on online instruction.
The NJEA maintained that the state’s nearly 20-year-old charter-school law did not explicitly allow for the use of “blended learning” instruction that combines face-to-face classes with heavy use of online programs.
But the unanimous decision by the three-member panel said the state’s charter school law gave the state’s education commissioner broad authority to approve non-traditional teaching.
“We find no merit in NJEA's argument that the absence of an express reference to online teaching in the Act and its legislative history suggests the Legislature would not permit that form of teaching,” read the court’s decision.
“The Act does not make reference to any specific teaching method,” the opinion read. “If online teaching methods are prohibited because they are not expressly mentioned, then it follows that all novel teaching methods not prescribed by the Act are prohibited.”
The NJEA immediately announced that it would appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
“We have always taken the position that unless the Legislature grants specific authority with respect to charter schools, that authority does not exist,” said a statement from NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer. “The court has apparently taken the view that absent legislation prohibiting virtual instruction in blended charters, it is permissible.”
Nonetheless, the decision was a strong rebuttal of the NJEA’s argument and clears the way not just for the two schools in question, Newark Preparatory School and Merit Preparatory School, to continue operations in Newark, but also for potential expansion of online instruction.
And that potential expansion may come sooner than expected, as a second school connected with for-profit K12 Inc., which operates Newark Prep, was proposed for Elizabeth in the latest round of charter applications received last week. The decision follows a state Supreme Court decision last year that also deferred to the state in deciding on charter schools -- in that case, the rejection of a proposed school in Montclair.
Critics said yesterday that the appeals court decision illustrates the continued need to address the issue of online instruction. Several pending bills propose revisions of the state’s charter school law, but none of them as yet have included provisions for online learning.
The decision doesn’t touch upon the question of whether the state can allow entirely online or so-called virtual schools. The Christie administration has so far balked at allowing such schools, in part questioning whether they are allowed under existing law.
"This decision highlights the need to reform New Jersey's charter school law so that it reflects the will of the people and legislative intent versus having the courts deferring to whatever the Commissioner of Education wants to do,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a founding member of Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots group critical of the state’s charter policies.
“Clearly, hybrid-virtual charter schools were not part of legislative intent when the charter law was written, almost 20 years ago,” she said.
She and others said that outside organizations like K12 continue to seek inroads in New Jersey through its lax charter law.
The decision “does point up need to reform charter law to catch up to creative ways out of state and national charter operators are using the law to expand to compete and replace district schools, which was not the intent of the legislature when enacted in 1995,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group.
Efforts yesterday to contact K12 Inc. were unsuccessful, and both the founder of Merit Prep and the state Department of Education declined further comment on the decision.