After months of protests, contentious meetings and accusations of conflicts of interest, the state Department of Education on Friday rejected charter schools proposed for West Orange and other successful suburban school districts.
Two of those charter schools, which were planned to open in Livingston and Maplewood, proposed Mandarin Chinese immersion education. To pay for those schools, suburban school districts would have had to allocate cash to cover 90 percent of tuition for any district student who chose to attend – a cost that sparked bitter sentiments that these specialty schools would drain public funds from well-functioning school districts.
Proponents countered that language immersion education would better prepare pupils for the increasing demands of a global marketplace and that it would not be as big a drain as districts claimed because the district would not have to educate those children.
“Charter schools serve a critical need in New Jersey not only by providing high-quality options for students where they otherwise do not exist, but also by serving as laboratories of innovation,” said Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf in making Friday’s announcement.
Along with denying the applications for those schools that would have pulled from West Orange and neighboring districts, the state rejected all those for the Essex County suburbs. And statewide, of the 55 bids, only four were approved.
Those four – in Trenton, Jersey City, Camden, and Cherry Hill – will open next September.
“That’s good news for us,” said Millburn Superintendent Dr. James Crisfield, who first alerted parents in April of the proposed charters and immediately hosted an “informational session” inviting other districts to learn what charters would mean for their schools. “I’m relieved and very grateful. It would have been very difficult to make financial ends meet with yet another drain on our resources.”
Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27th District), who has led efforts for charter school reform in Trenton, said she was “encouraged by the measured approach taken by the department in evaluating and approving four out of the 55 charter schools. However, I remain concerned about the large number of schools that have been approved this year."
So far, that number is 27, the largest number approved in any one year since the charter law was passed in New Jersey, according to the state Department of Education.
“With thousands of children on waiting lists, there is clearly a demand for more public charter schools in New Jersey,” said Carlos Perez, the president and CEO of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, in a statement released by the group.
Cerf said he expects another large applicant pool for the fall expedited round. That deadline is Oct. 17.
“That worries me,” Jasey said. “We still haven’t addressed the capacity and oversight issues.”
Voters are also insisting for a voice on whether a charter school can open in their districts. “People want a say, and that’s true in suburban and urban districts,” Jasey said.
“The NJ legislature has to reform this broken law immediately to bring the state in line with the rest of the country and to give local communities control over their public schools and how their property taxes are spent," said Julia Sass Rubin, a founder of Save Our Schools New Jersey.
That was part of the reason Millburn hosted the – to make residents, parents and educators aware of how charters are approved and how much oversight they have. "What we wanted to do with that was to let people understand the issue," Crisfield said. "We thought a decision like this should not be done without people who would be affected having all the information they needed."
In , where hundreds of residents attended public forums and rallies to protest charter schools in a high-performing school district, Justin Escher Alpert, a local critic, said, “I am relieved that the Christie Administration sided with The People.”
Livingston rallied against two bilingual immersion schools that sought to open:
- Hanyu International Academy, for students from Livingston, Millburn-Short Hills and West Orange school districts.
- Hua Mei Charter, for students from South Orange-Maplewood, Millburn, Union, West Orange, and Livingston.
The suburban districts acted together to the state Department of Education to deny the applications.
In South Orange-Maplewood, Superintendent said, "We appreciate NJDOE’s decision and are now focused on redoubling our efforts to ensure that all students receive the excellent education they need to be on a pathway to college and career readiness."
In addition, the residents from the neighboring towns banded together to draw attention to a package of reforms being considered in Trenton.
“The NJ legislature has to reform this broken law immediately to bring the State in line with the rest of the country and to give local communities control over their public schools and how their property taxes are spent," Rubin said.
Last week in Livingston, Rubin and Perez the hot-button education issue at a forum organized by the League of Women Voters of Livingston.
"Going forward, we support legislative and policy changes that will ensure high-quality charter schools in New Jersey, including expanding the number of charter school authorizers in the state," Perez said on Friday. "Having more charter school authorizers will not only ensure new charter schools are high quality, but will help to ensure existing charter schools are living up to expectations.”
Governor Chris Christie has called on legislators to pass his proposed reforms to the New Jersey charter law to strengthen and expand high-quality charter schools in New Jersey, including allowing districts to convert failing public schools into charters.
The charters proposed locally, however, came under fire because they sought to venture into a high-performing school districts. and Cerf at various times conceded that charter schools may not be needed in districts that are .”
The Mandarin schools were asked to clarify their academics over the summer by the Charter School office. Of the four approved, Cerf said, “The most important bar that any applicant must clear is demonstrating that the school has a very high likelihood of providing an excellent education to its students. Through our rigorous review process, we became confident that these four schools will offer students a great education on day one of the school year.“
Applicants not approved in this round have the opportunity to reapply. “It has been our experience that with additional guidance and time to plan, applicants who were not approved have been able to resubmit successful applications,” Cerf said.
That wasn’t in the case in Montclair, where Quest Academy was denied approval for the fourth time. Earlier this month, Tracey Williams, one of the organizers of the Quest Academy — a proposed charter high school — said she was optimistic the group would be approved. "They really only had a few questions ... such as whether we'd have someone trained for ESL students ... and we said we would have someone," she said.
“We appreciate that the DOE is hearing some of our concerns and taking a more measured approach to charter school authorization, Rubin said. “However, the fundamental problems with the New Jersey charter school law have not disappeared, including a complete lack of local control over the new charter school approval process.”
Patch editors Laura Griffin, Marcia Worth, Mary Mann and Shelly Emling contributed.