After months of protests, contentious meetings and accusations of conflicts of interest, the state Department of Education today rejected two charter schools proposed for Millburn and other successful suburban school districts.
Two of those charter schools, which were planned for Livingston and Maplewood, proposed Mandarin Chinese immersion education. To pay for those schools, suburban school districts including Millburn would have had to allocate cash to cover 90 percent of tuition for any district student who chose to attend – a cost that sparked bitter sentiments that these specialty schools would drain public funds from well-functioning school districts.
Proponents countered that language-immersion education would better prepare pupils for the increasing demands of a global marketplace and that it would not be as big a drain as districts claimed because the district would no have to educate those children.
Along with denying the applications for those schools that would have pulled from Livingston and neighboring districts, the state rejected all the proposed charters for Essex County.
“That’s good news for us,” said Millburn Superintendent Dr. James Crisfield, who first alerted parents in April of the proposed charters and immediately hosted an “informational session” inviting other districts to learn about charters would mean a charter would for their schools. “I’m relieved and very grateful. It would have been very difficult to make financial ends meet with yet another drain on our resources.”
Of the 55 bids for Charter Schools statewide, only four were approved.
Those four -- in Trenton, Jersey City, Camden, and Cherry Hill -- will open next September.
“I’m encouraged by the measured approach taken by the department in evaluating and approving four out of the 55 charter schools,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27th District), who has led efforts for charter school reform in Trenton.
“However, I remain concerned about the large number of schools that have been approved this year,” she said.
So far, that number has reached 27, the largest number approved in any one year since the charter law was passed in New Jersey, according to a press release from the state Department of Education.
“Charter schools serve a critical need in New Jersey not only by providing high-quality options for students where they otherwise do not exist, but also by serving as laboratories of innovation,” said Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf.
Cerf said he expects another large applicant pool for the fall expedited round. That deadline is Oct. 17.
“That worries me,” Jasey said. “We still haven’t addressed the capacity and oversight issues.”
Carlos Perez, the president and CEO of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, issued the following statement today:
“With thousands of children on waiting lists, there is clearly a demand for more public charter schools in New Jersey. Every child in New Jersey deserves a chance to attend a high-quality public school that is right for them. New Jersey must continue to grow the charter school sector, but not at the expense of quality. Our Association has been consistent in its position that only applicants who have demonstrated the capacity and commitment to creating top-performing public charter schools should be approved. We are confident the state Department of Education approved only charter schools that clearly demonstrated they can provide children with a high-quality education."
Voters are also insisting that they have a say on whether a charter school can open in their districts because of the drain on already strapped budgets. “People want a say, and that’s true in suburban and urban districts,” Jasey said.
“We appreciate that the DOE is hearing some of our concerns and taking a more measured approach to charter school authorization,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a founder of Save Our Schools New Jersey. “However, the fundamental problems with the New Jersey charter school law have not disappeared, including a complete lack of local control over the new charter school approval process.”
That was part of the reason Millburn hosted the “informational session” – to make residents, parents and educators aware of the how charters are approved and how much oversight they have.
“"What we wanted to do with that was to let people understand the issue," he said. "We thought a decision like this should not be done without people who would be affected having all the information they needed."
In Livingston, where hundreds of residents attended public forums and rallies to protest charter schools in a high-performing school district, Justin Escher Alpert, a vocal critic, said, “I am relieved that the Christie Administration sided with The People.”
Two charter schools sought to open that would draw from Millburn were:
- Hanyu International Academy, for students from Livingston, Millburn-Short Hills and West Orange school districts.
- Hua Mei Charter, for students from Millburn-Short Hills, South Orange-Maplewood, Union, West Orange, and Livingston.
The suburban districts said charter schools could drain their already strapped budgets and acted together to persuade the state Department of Education from granting approval.
In South Orange-Maplewood, Superintendent Brian Osborne said, "We appreciate NJDOE’s decision and are now focused on redoubling our efforts to ensure that all students receive the excellent education they need to be on a pathway to college and career readiness."
Millburn hosted a Save Our Schools rally to draw attention to a package of reforms being considered in Trenton.
“The NJ legislature has to reform this broken law immediately to bring the State in line with the rest of the country and to give local communities control over their public schools and how their property taxes are spent," Rubin said.
Governor Christie has called on legislators to pass his proposed reforms to the New Jersey charter law to strengthen and expand high-quality charter schools in New Jersey, including allowing districts to convert failing public schools into charters.
The charters proposed locally, however, came under fire because they sought to venture into high-performing school districts. Christie and Cerf at various times conceded that charter schools may not be needed in districts that are “humming along.”
Over the summer, the Mandarin schools were asked to clarify their academics by the Charter School office. Of the four approved, Cerf said, “The most important bar that any applicant must clear is demonstrating that the school has a very high likelihood of providing an excellent education to its students. Through our rigorous review process, we became confident that these four schools will offer students a great education on day one of the school year.”
Applicants not approved in this round have the opportunity to reapply. “It has been our experience that with additional guidance and time to plan, applicants who were not approved have been able to resubmit successful applications,” Cerf said.