Millburn Hosts Panel Discussion on Charter Schools
Princeton school officials among those talking about the cost of charter schools to school districts.
Updated, 9:30 a.m. Tuesday
School leaders from four neighboring school districts gathered in Millburn on Monday night to learn more about charter schools – a divisive issue in New Jersey that now concerns even high-performing districts like Millburn, which is faced with two Mandarin-immersion charters seeking approval.
“It’s a storm and it’s a big storm now,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools. “And it’s not a perfect storm.”
Strickland was part of a panel brought together at Millburn High School to provide school boards from Millburn, Livingston, Union and South Orange-Maplewood with information to take back to their communities.
Millburn will follow up this meeting an agenda item for discussion by board members and the public at its May 23 meeting, said Superintendent Dr. James Crisfield.
School districts have until the end of May to respond to the New Jersey Department of Education with concerns and questions about applications filed by two Mandarin charters – Hanyu International Academy Charter School and Hua Mei Charter School.
Millburn school board attorney and panelist Anthony Sciarrillo said the application process, as it is now, is set up for charter schools to succeed.
If approved, both schools would open in September 2012. Hanyu would accept students from Livingston, Millburn-Short Hills and West Orange. The Hua Mei Charter School would draw from South Orange-Maplewood, Millburn, Union, West Orange and Livingston according to the applications.
On Monday night, questions by elected school officials (neither the public nor the charter school founders were invited to speak) focused on money and concern that the charters would funnel funds away from districts already dealing with diminishing budgets.
That’s been the case in Princeton, where the Princeton Charter School has existed for the past 12 years, said Rebecca Cox, Princeton's school board president. The district will write a check for $4.5 million to cover the costs of the 340 students who attend the K-8 charter school, Cox said.
Last year, Princeton Regional Schools cut its world language program to pay the charter school bill. “There’s great irony in that and quite frankly it felt misguided,” said Princeton Superintendent Dr. Judy Wilson.
Local school leaders zeroed in on the financial impact. For each child that opts for the charter school, school districts would have to 90 percent of their per pupil cost to that school.
"When we're trying to cut where we can, this is adding costs. That is my biggest concern," said Millburn Superintendent James Crisfield after the forum.
The way it stands now, school boards will not have a say in whether charters open in their districts. That will be the decision of the NJ Department of Education. But there is movement in the legislature to give local voters a choice.
Assemblyman Patrick Deignan (D), Chairman of the Education Committee, is expected to begin hearings later this month on bills that would give municipalities the right to vote on charter schools in their towns, Strickland said.
A non-profit advocacy group, Save Our Schools NJ, supports the legislation and representatives attended the meeting wearing yellow buttons that read Save Our Schools and handed out fliers to audience members.
“We are not opposing charter schools,” Julia Sass Rubin, a spokesman for the group whose own daughter attends a charter school, told reporters after the meeting. “We’re opposing the way charter schools are authorized and held accountable. The community should have a say in what they do – the community should make decisions not have them imposed on them by the state.”
New Jersey currently has 73 charter schools, according to Dr. Katrina Bulkley, associate professor of Educational Leadership at Montclair State University, who presented some of the national research on the charter movement.
Gov. Chris Christie has pushed for more charters and they are increasingly being proposed in high-ranking districts. The charters proposed for Millburn would offer bilingual immersion, meaning up to 50 percent of instruction would be taught in Mandarin.
About 100 people attended the meeting in Millburn, a mix of board members, community residents, and advocates on both sides of the issue.
Bill Gaudelli, newly elected to the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, asked if there was “any wisdom” in bringing into the current curriculum the bilingual immersion the proposed charters would offer. (Livingston offers Mandarin beginning in 7th grade).
“You can’t yield to every small group’s desires,” said Wilson, the Princeton superintendent. “This year it’s Mandarin,” Cox added. “Next year it could be Gaelic, ceramics or bagpipes. You don’t know where it would stop.”
The forum also elicited opinions on inclusion and diversity in charter schools and oversight, all with poor track records in New Jersey, Princeton’s school leaders said.
It’s a view contested by the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. After the forum, Carlos Perez, the group’s president and CEO, said that because the charter school community was not represented on the panel, the audience did not get a full or completely accurate picture of charter schools. “It did not dispel all the myths about charter schools,” he said.
Perez also said he was flabbergasted by the questioning of the motives of charter school founders – namely for patronage.
“Under New Jersey law, charter school teachers have to be certified and meet all state qualifications,” he said. “Charter schools are started by educational entrepreneurs who want to create great public schools."
In recent weeks, founders have said they want children to be able to compete in a global marketplace and that fluency in Mandarin will give children an advantage. For some, they have said, it's also a way to stay fluent and connected to their heritage.
Newly elected Livingston school board member Barry Funt observed: “In other districts, the issue of the appropriateness of charter schools has fractured the community.”
Reading from prepared remarks at the board’s meeting earlier Monday night, Funt said, “We need to lead the way and set an appropriately civil tone for this debate. Those who support charter schools are not our enemies.”
Newly elected Millburn school board member Jean Pasternak asked what role changing demographics plays in the formation of charter schools. “I’d like to know the ‘why’– the idea of bringing a charter here to begin with,” she said afterward. “...I definitely learned a lot, and there’s a lot to learn. Taxation without representation is definitely a legitimate issue being raised here.”
After the forum, Crisfield said he thought it was enlightening and a good beginning for addressing concerns that the public might have.
"People were asking a lot of questions we don't have solid answers for," he said. “…I look forward to continuing the dialogue.”