New N.J. bills could halt growth of charter schools in suburbs, expand in unwelcome areas
Jessica Calefati | The Star-Ledger
TRENTON — The Assembly advanced a package of bills tonight that could stymie the growth of charter schools in the suburbs while dramatically expanding their portfolio statewide.
One bill (A3852), sponsored by Education Committee Chairman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), would require voter approval before charters could open in unwelcoming communities. It was approved, 47-17, with 14 abstentions.
But another bill (A2806), approved, 59-14, with four abstentions, would allow hundreds of high-performing private and parochial schools in failing districts to convert to charter schools as long as they remove religious teachings and symbolism from curricula and facilities.
"Community support is crucial in strengthening the establishment of charter schools," Diegnan said. "Local input will help ensure that the charter schools that are created fit the needs of the community, thereby strengthening the entire public education system."
Taxpayers currently have no say over where charter schools are located and opposition to their growth in high performing suburban districts has been mounting in recent months because the state Department of Education is reviewing applications to open new charters.
Last week, a grass roots group of local leaders known as Save Our Schools NJ held rallies in three communities — South Brunswick, Highland Park and Millburn—where boutique charter schools focusing on Mandarin and Hebrew language instruction are being considered.
Hundreds turned out for the rallies — many shouting "We want a vote!" — and urged lawmakers to give them a say before charters open and pull students and funding from their district schools.
"You can’t take other people’s tax dollars and allocate it to a small group in that community without buy-in from the majority," said Julia Sass Rubin, an unofficial leader of the group. "This bill has tremendous popular support, so there are no excuses to not move it forward right away."
The bill to allow private and parochial schools to become charters had support from lawmakers and Gov. Chris Christie, but was opposed by the Catholic church, an organization the bill stands to help.
Declining enrollment has led the state’s parochial schools to close in record numbers over the past decade, and the bill aims to alleviate that shortage. Many families that pull students from parochial schools do so because they can no longer afford the tuition.
"Families look to Catholic schools because of the teaching of values inculcated throughout the entire program," said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark. "This would convert our schools from their original mission of faith-based education."
The other two bills (A3083 and A3356), approved, 64-8, with six abstentions, and 72-6 respectively, would allow up to three public colleges and universities to authorize new charter schools and would codify transparency and accountability measures that are common practice among many charters, such as maintaining a wait list for interested students.
The Senate has not taken action on any of the bills.