Charter Schools: It's Decision Time
Will 'boutique' schools be approved? Department of Education to release new class of charters on Friday.
Millburn and nearby districts will learn on Friday the decision on two charter schools that would teach bilingual immersion, the state Department of Education said.
Sen. Richard Codey has called this new class of approvals “a watershed moment” in education as charter schools try to move into suburbs with high-performing school districts.
The state Department of Education has before it 55 applications for new charters, including the two Mandarin-immersion schools that would recruit students from Millburn and neighboring districts.
The decisions have been cloaked in secrecy. “They’ve been closed mouth about it, at least around me,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27th District) on Thursday.
Jasey has been leading efforts in Trenton to rewrite the state's 15-year-old statute governing charter schools.
“Charter schools are part of the public school landscape,” Jasey said, “but there is work to be done to define their role and how they’re going to interact with regular public schools.”
Rich Vespucci, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, confirmed that the decisions would be released on Friday. “We are still on track,” he said.
Livingston will be keeping an eye on two applications:
- Hanyu International Academy would serve students from Livingston, Millburn-Short Hills and West Orange school districts. It identifies an empty office park off Route 10 in Livingston as the school’s potential site, Regent Park.
- Hua Mei Charter would be housed in the St. Joseph’s RC Church on Prospect Avenue in Maplewood and draw students from South Orange-Maplewood, Millburn, Union, West Orange, and Livingston, the application says.
If approved, the schools would open in September 2012 for Grades K-2 and expand over time.
Tensions have been building over the pending decision for the past six months. Millburn and the other suburban school districts say these charter schools will drain money away from public schools already scrapping by. Proponents of school choice counter that charter schools are public schools and offer opportunities that the traditional schools are failing to address.
Both sides said they are anxiously awaiting the decision.
The decision ultimately falls to Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, who has attended numerous forums on this hot-button education issue. At a panel discussion last spring Cerf acknowledged that what he called “boutique” charter schools, such as those offering language immersion programs, might not be needed in suburban districts that are “humming along.”
“Hopefully Cerf will proceed in a measured way,” Jasey said. “He’s heard NJ voters and their concerns. I’m hoping whatever he decides reflects the concerns of voters.”
Those concerns have repeatedly been expressed at rallies and public meetings, including the financial impact to school districts, accountability and transparency.
“We do not expect the Department of Education to approve many or possibly any new suburban charter schools in order not to rile up the suburbs before the election,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a founder of Save our Schools, a grassroots group advocating for new charter schools law.
“However, until the charter law is reformed to bring New Jersey in line with the rest of the country by requiring local approval for new charters, communities will continue to have no control over their schools and their property taxes,” Rubin said on Thursday. “This issue isn't going away until our broken charter law is repaired."
Last week in Livingston, Rubin represented Save our Schools in a debate with Carlos Perez, president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.
Over the summer, the proposed schools were required to resubmit their financial statements and expand how they will assess academic success, according to addendas to their application posted on the Livingston Public Schools website. (See charter school information here).
If the charter schools are approved by the NJ Department of Education, the school districts would pick up 90 percent of the cost per student.
In other news related to charter schools, a New Jersey state senator has filed a legal challenge to force the Department of Education to turn over the names of volunteer reviewers who helped select new charter schools.
Sen. Nia Gill, (D-Essex) cited possible conflicts of interest in the approval process. The department must appear in Superior Court in Mercer County on Dec. 9 to answer the challenge.
According to NJ.com, state officials in January said more than a dozen volunteer reviewers read applications and gave non-binding recommendations on proposed charter schools.
Earlier this week, the state Senate approved a bill that would allow certain parochial and private schools to convert to charters. Few believe the proposal will lead to many conversions, but it may send a lifeline to at least a few closing Catholic schools, according to NJ Spotlight.