Package of Four Controversial Charter Bills To Come Before Assembly

June 27, 2011

Charter school policy will get one last look this week before the legislature heads off for summer, with the Assembly expected to take up a package of proposals that could change how the schools are approved and monitored.

Whether the Senate will consider the measures as quickly let alone approve any or all of them is far less certain.

The Assembly budget committee is expected to hear two controversial bills today. One would allow certain parochial and private schools to be converted into publicly funded charters.

The other bill would expand the number of outside organizations that could review, approve and oversee charters. Now, just the state Department of Education (DOE) has that role, called an authorizer.

In addition, two charter bills already approved in committee are headed to vote in the full Assembly on Thursday. These include the most controversial measure of all: a bill to give local voters a binding say on whether a charter school could open in a community.

The other would strengthen some of the accountability rules affecting charters, including tighter requirements for tracking the mix of students at a school.

Four in One

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, said this weekend that he wanted to move all four bills as one package.

Diegnan has been critical of Gov. Chris Christie’s aggressive push for charter schools and sponsored the local vote measure, a proposal that Christie’s education commissioner, Chris Cerf, has staunchly opposed.

Diegnan said in an interview that the bills taken together serve a purpose in allowing charter schools to grow, but with significant checks.

"Charter schools are a possible solution in the places that need them, but they are not in those that don’t need them," he said. "This package of bill addresses that, and I believe has bipartisan support."

He also predicted that all four bills could pass easily in the Assembly, although he made no such predictions for the Senate. "I have a tough enough time counting the Assembly,' he said.

Other Assembly members weren’t so sure, either, saying even the less controversial of the bills was a long shot to get posted for vote in the Senate before the summer break. That leaves the legislation unlikely to be taken up before the November election, and instead headed toward the legislature’s "lame duck" session afterward.

State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) sponsored the authorizer bill that has several similar provisions to a Senate version sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate education committee chairwoman. But the Senate bill has not moved since approved by Ruiz’s committee earlier this spring, making final passage this week unlikely.

"I haven’t heard anything from Senator Ruiz, so I’m not sure this is going anywhere [beyond the Assembly],” Jasey said. "Still, we could move it and then we’ll just wait for the lame duck session."

Jasey and Diegnan said changes have been made to the conversion bill to try to win passage. One amendment would only allow the conversion of non-public schools that have proven academic success and are located in low-performing public school districts.

"This is only to bail out a school that is closing for financial reasons," said Jasey. "I see it as being very limited, with in all likelihood these students coming into the public schools anyway."