New Charter School Bill Previews Before Committee

June 10, 2013

Almost two decades since New Jersey’s first charter school law was enacted, the Legislature’s latest stab at a law for the state’s growing charter movement will get its first public airing today. But it is far from a done deal and and even if it's embraced by the panel skirts two of the most contentious charter school issues.

The Assembly education committee this afternoon is scheduled to hold its first discussion of the bill (A-4177) crafted by its chairman, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex).

Under the bill, an independent oversight board would be created inside the state Department of Education to review new charters and monitor existing ones in a move to address growing questions about the quality and access of the alternative schools.

“When all is said and done, we don’t want a kid to start at a charter school that three or four years later is going to be closed down,” Diegnan said last week at a forum hosted by the New Jersey School Boards Association and New Jersey PTA.

“We want to know that before it starts, it is properly vetted, and that on an annual basis it is properly vetted,” he said.

In what is sure to be its most contested provision, the bill would also require local voters to approve any new charter schools within their community. In addition, it would place new requirements on schools to not only provide full access to students but also prove they are doing so.

Still, the bill has two glaring omissions, ones that Diegnan acknowledged will likely need their own legislation: the funding of charter schools and the opening of all-online charters.

Diegnan said that this was not the time to bring up the financing issue, noting that the state’s lean budgets of late provide little room for the state to potentially ease some of the burden on local districts. The financing strains have arguably been the chief impetus for many of the latest battles around charters, especially in suburban communities.

“There are other ways to raise money, and that’s its own debate and discussion,” Diegnan said. “We need to confront how we will properly fund education in this state. We have to have a discussion about this.

“That’s a separate issue, and should be done separately,” he added. “The economy is starting to turn around, and let’s deal with that when we have a little money coming in.”

In addition, Diegnan said the topic of virtual schools also needs more time and study before the state can come up with new rules, if the state is even to permit them at all. He commended state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf for his decision last week to reject the final charters for two virtual schools that had won preliminary approval. Cerf, too, said the state needed to determine how to fund and monitor the schools before moving forward.

“We don’t want to inhibit technology in education, but that’s a real leap that we need to get a handle on,” Diegnan said. “I want to congratulate the commissioner, and I think the appropriate step right now is to take a timeout on any virtual charter applications so as we can get our arms around this whole process.”

Even with those omissions, that still leaves plenty of topics for discussion today and moving forward. The hottest one is likely to be the provision for a local vote, something that the Assembly approved last year in its own legislation but has never even been posted for vote in the Senate. Gov. Chris Christie and his administration have been clear that they would never approve such a safeguard, either.

Diegnan stood by it last week, stating that the local say is critical not only to the community but even to the charter school itself.

“If the community is not supportive of the school, it by nature has two strikes before it starts,” he said. “I just don’t buy the premise of those that say a charter school will never be approved. Show a community that this is an asset and give them options, and I can’t imagine a community would not support it.”

And he said he would unlikely support a new charter law without it. “To me, that’s an important issue. We can discuss it, but in the long run, it’s one I’ll have a hard time getting off,” Diegnan said.

State Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex) sponsored the legislation last year, and at the same forum last week said he thinks that the numbers would see charter schools being approved in at least districts where the local schools have struggled.

“Here’s the interesting [thing] that would happen,” he said. “It would do away with the conflicts in the suburban districts, for clearly there they would be voted down, but in the urban areas, they would probably all succeed.

“When look at the waiting lists in these [charter] schools in the inner cities, and the turnout you usually see in school elections, I think they would all be approved.”

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chairman of the Senate education committee, has not supported such a measure, and her vote will be key as she is the likely sponsor of a new charter bill on the Senate side.

She is expected to file her bill within the next month, and possibly hold hearings over the summer. Diegnan’s and Ruiz’s staffs have met over their respective bills, with both legislators saying they hope for a consensus measure.

It just may take longer than expected.

“The process is just started,” Diegnan said. “My hope was we were going to get it on the governor’s desk before we adjourn [for summer], but we will not. It is my goal more to do it right than do it quickly, and it is still my plan to have it done before the end of the year.”