Charter Schools: The Ball's in Christie's Court
Timing may be right as local districts make their best pitch.
The surge in charter schools in New Jersey has Gov. Chris Christie’s full support, but when it comes to charter schools in his hometown, the governor last week hinted he doesn’t feel quite so strongly about them.
Speaking at Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, the governor said his support for charter schools isn't limited to urban areas. But over the city line, he said, “there should be a need for that school and a demand for that school.”
The remarks echoed his top education chief – Acting Commissioner Christopher Cerf -- who last month said “boutique” charters, such as those offering language immersion programs, might not be needed in suburban districts that are “humming along.”
Taken together, two bilingual boutiques seeking approval in Livingston and neighboring school districts -- Hanyu International Academy Charter School and Hua Mei Charter School – may have a harder time getting past the approval process than the scores of other charter schools that have opened their doors.
“Maybe it does signal a change,” observed Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex). “I don’t think they were prepared for the very strong and negative reaction from suburban communities that are also highly functioning.”
The NJ Department of Education is now wading through the letters of protest sent by the Livingston Board of Education and superintendents from Millburn, West Orange and South Orange-Maplewood. The districts won't know what the state decides for at least 90 days.
In their opposition letters, each of the four districts took a different tact: Livingston hammering away on areas of the applications that fail to meet requirements of the Charter Act and Code: specifically staffing and community support -- six pages of names within both applications are identical, Livingston's letter says.
Millburn's letter focuses on the financial burden to the school districts and the united opposition within the community to the charter schools. West Orange points out that it already has a well-regarded Mandarin program.
In opposing the Hua Mei Charter School, South Orange-Maplewood makes a case that the application “appears to discriminate based on race and socio-economic status” because while it seeks to attract students from as far afield as Livingston and crosses county lines with Union, it does not include the high-poverty, bordering cities of Irvington, Orange, East Orange and Newark, all which are specifically encouraged to open charter schools.
Jasey expressed disappointment that lawmakers for the past 15 years have failed to rewrite the language of the original legislation to clarify the purpose of charter schools and their fiscal and demographic impact on school districts.
“The charters were put into play as an alternative in districts where public education was failing their students and it gave an outlet to break the cycle,” added Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex). “It wasn't supposed to be going into the best districts in the state and to have subject matters picked off as a way to start your own public school. You're going to basically destroy the whole public school system.”
Speaking at Livingston's BOE meeting last week, Senator Richard Codey said the three local lawmakers support the legislation that would give voters the right to decide if they want charter schools in their district, a bill that recently passed the Assembly Education Committee. Its next hurdle is the Senate Education Committee.
“The goal is to have it posted for vote in June and have in on the Governor’s desk by July,” Jasey said. “If he signs the bill that allows for local vote … that would signal a major change,” she said.
Patch editors Karen Yi, Laura Griffin and Mary Mann contributed.