Lesniak’s charter school bill faces committee hearing, Senate vote

TRENTON – State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, (D-22), of Elizabeth, is determined to unshackle the charter school movement, one way or another.

The Opportunity Scholarship Act was a pilot program – when it started – that would have loosened the noose on charters through a voucher program. But its opponents felt it was runaway-train legislation, ending up much more broad and unwieldy than it began.

This time, Lesniak’s S1858 is direct and to the point: any non-public school in a failing district can apply to become a charter school by submitting a petition signed by a majority of parents or teachers.

It is a little more complicated than that, but Lesniak called it the “poor man’s” Opportunity Scholarship Act – with bigger results. “Less schools would qualify (under OSA to become charters) than would qualify under this bill,” he said. “It helps because it keeps ongoing schools alive.”

The bill will go before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Thursday, then straight to the Senate floor for a vote, bypassing the Senate Education Committee.

Lesniak recalled a Newark non-public school a few years back that requested a charter conversion, but was required to dismiss the student body, fire the faculty, and shutter its doors for a full year before the conversion could take place.

“That’s a terrible waste of money when you had a currently operating school,” he said. This bill removes “impediments,” encouraging conversion for non-publics that have “better records than start-up schools because they’re already operational,” Lesniak said.

The lower-chamber version, sponsored by Assembly members Mila Jasey, (D-27), of South Orange, and Albert Coutinho, (D-29), of Newark, passed in June, 59-14-6.

The opponents were mixed – Rs and Ds, urban, suburban, and rural – but Lesniak said he thinks a vast majority of the upper chamber votes will be in favor.

He said the Senate is adopting amendments made in the Assembly,

The state is not responsible for the cost of the school for the first year of the conversion; student tuitions would pay for operations of the school.

According to the Office of Legislative Services, the state’s cost for the public-converted school is indeterminable. “In subsequent years,” the fiscal note states, “the resulting increase in districts’ resident enrollments may increase State expenditures, through the provision of increased State school aid and a corresponding increase in local revenue. Certain provisions of the school funding law, however, may prevent such an increase from occurring in some districts.”

To be eligible for conversion, the non-public school must be high-performing – averaging in the 66th percentile on standardized tests – located in a failing school, or a “district in need of improvement” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Students already enrolled in the non-public school would be grandfathered into the new school, while new students would be entered into a lottery, per charter procedures, if the applicants outnumber the available seats.

Lesniak said the conversion of struggling parochial schools would be optimal, but the local representatives of the Catholic Church have not yet endorsed the bill.

Lesniak said there is a “strict requirement” to take all religious activity out of the school, including from the curriculum, the name of the school, and in the form of statues or other relics.

“I thought it would fit well,” he said of the bill and the plight of Catholic schools. He said the core mission of educating the undereducated could continue, and the religious mission could be carried out in community services programs, without the Biblical references.

State Sen. Shirley Turner, (D-14), of Lawrenceville, has been critical of the charter movement because she believes it draws attention and resources away from the other public schools. While she’ll listen to the arguments on this bill Thursday, she’s skeptical.

“There’s some democracy involved in it,” she said in reference to the petition-initiated eligibility. In these “low-performing districts,” Turner said, “It would provide greater opportunity…provide something in the way of a choice.”

It also allows the state to evaluate the school as it exists before green-lighting the charter. “They have a track record to look at,” she said. “I don’t think they’re doing a good job in screening these charters to see if they’ll be in business for the long haul.”

Two charter schools closed in her district this year, throwing the students, parents, and teachers in tumult. “There were parents and teachers (coming up to me) in tears,” she said. “Almost 1,000 students. It was devastating to the students and the parents.”

“If (the non-publics that apply) have a good track record,” then they might stand a better chance of surviving. But students, parents, and teachers need stability, she said. “If it’s just a way for these schools to hang on for another year, it won’t work.”

Lesniak’s charter school bill faces committee hearing, Senate vote