Charters up for debate

Opponents and supporters of charter schools called for greater accountability  in a hearing Monday before the Assembly Education Committee.

Calling charter schools the ultimate unfunded mandate, East Brunswick Schools Deputy Superintendent Evelyn Ogden told the committee “taxpayers need legislative protection from undocumented-needs charter schools.’’

As an example, Ogden told the committee that despite not meeting a state requirement that 90 percent of its intended student population be registered by June 30, a Hebrew-based charter school was allowed to open in September in her district.

Ogden said the district’s $1.2 million bill for the charter school was piled on top of an $11 million reduction in state aid. The current state law mandates 90 percent of the public district’s per-pupil cost follow the student to the charter school.

The hearing was to collect testimony on proposed legislation that would increase accountability regarding charter schools, including a proposal to increase the number of entities allowed to authorize new charters.  Currently the Department of Education has the sole power.

Even those who back charter schools spoke in favor of such increased authorization.

Carlos Perez, CEO of the N.J. Charter Schools Association, said the legislation before the committee represents “a new day, a new opportunity for charter schools in New Jersey.’’

He called for changes in the law governing the 15-year-old movement that will foster an environment of greater accountability, expansion of the authorization aspect,  support for performance-based charter contracts, and taking into account the diversity of a school district’s population.

Sharon Krengel, the policy and outreach coordinator for the Education Law Center, which advocates for public school children, said one of the problems with charter schools as the law is now configured is that they take in far fewer special-needs, poor, or foreign-language based students.

She called for increased transparency, including the posting on websites of up-to-date waiting lists for the charter schools.

In addition to the call for expanded authorization, there were calls for greater scrutiny of charter schools’ quality.

Princeton Regional School Board President Rebecca Cox urged the committee to amend the law to require charters to prove that an educational need exists and that existing charters prove their students  do measurably better than similar students from the sending district.

Committee member Assemblyman Ruben Ramos (D-33) of Hoboken said that “Everyone is not being treated totally fairly in this discussion.’’

Ramos, a teacher in Paterson schools, said New Jersey allows residents to vote on multimillion-dollar school budgets; the Legislature needs to look at giving residents a say in charters as well.

The sentiment was echoed by some others on the committee and by those testifying.

Committee Chairman Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-18) of South Plainfield said, “I don’t think anyone disagrees that charter schools are part of the solution, however they are not a magic bullet.’’

Assemblyman Joseph Malone (R-30) of Bordentown said that he was concerned, for example, with the selection process. There are a great deal of students who would like to be considered for charters, and he suggested the concept of including all students in the “pool,’’ from which students can opt out as the process moves along.

As Krengel said at one point, since the movement in New Jersey is 15 years old, “The law must be revised to reflect experience and current best practices.’’

  Charters up for debate